Beware, consumers! Abusing you is just the norm these days



Beware, consumers! Abusing you is just the norm these days

Every industry has its blind spot, and you need to be more vigilant than ever

Consumer journalist

One of the many things this job has taught me is that every industry has its blind spot; practices which are not justifiable, which are deeply prejudicial to their customers, but have become acceptable – to the companies.

The motor industry charging a hefty “on-the-road” fee as an add-on, instead of building those costs into the selling price of the vehicle, is a prime example.This week a woman e-mailed me to query an on-the-road fee of about R4,000 being added to her cash purchase of a new R170,000 car;  that fee covering, among other things, an 80-point check, a valet and “administrative costs”. On top of that, R3,700 was added to the deal for “smash and grab film” – without consulting her – another practice which appears to have become pretty standard. Now imagine a dealer principal going to a major appliance store to buy a high-end flat screen TV, and on being presented with the invoice, he sees he’s being charged an extra fee to cover the cost of cleaning it thoroughly, checking it for defects and an admin fee to cover all the paperwork and the salesman’s call to the SABC to check that the customer has a valid TV licence. And another fee for the cost of a special screen protector, which wasn’t mentioned to him. He’d be outraged, I’m quite sure. Funny, that. This time imagine a cellphone network executive receiving a telemarketing call, not agreeing to the product or service being sold, and then learning that the contract was concluded anyway, making them liable for payment – every month for two years.And when they object, they’re told the told the deal is done, and that’s that. Imagine the response. And yet telesales fraud happens to South Africans with scandalous regularity: they’re promised stuff they don’t get, the amount of data they are promised in that call doesn’t materialise and when they ask for a call recording to prove it, they’re stonewalled.
Many others are given a run-around when they report that a fraudster has opened a cellphone account – and received a lovely handset – in their name.  The responses I got from Vodacom about two recent cases I took up with the network drove home for me how such incidents are now routine, not worthy of the expression any real concern or regret on the network’s part.  
Case 1: Lindsay Vine Smyth got a call from a telesales agent last August, offering her a package. She didn’t agree to it, but asked to be sent information about the offer. The next day a box was delivered to her Joburg home, and she signed for it, thinking it was the requested information. When she opened the box – two months later – she found a wifi router and sim card, and realised she’d been “signed up for”  and billed for a 5GB monthly data package.  When she queried that, she was told she was bound to continue paying for it until August 2019. I took up the case with Vodacom, asking for the call recording to be retrieved in order to verify Vine-Smyth’s version, something which should have happened the moment she disputed agreeing to the package. Three weeks later, I got the following response: “Contract activated without consent: This customer’s contract has been cancelled. The customer will be credited and has been notified.” Okay, then.Case 2: I took up with the network in the same week, and the response was attached to Vine Smyth’s. Last September Sifiso Sosibo discovered that someone had opened two Vodacom accounts in his name in Mpumalanga – 700km from his Durban home.  “I’ve told Vodacom I didn’t open the accounts, and sent them a copy of my ID and an affidavit,” he said. And every month he reversed Vodacom’s debit order. “Vodacom staff won’t engage with me; my last three e-mails have been ignored,” he told me. “Instead they have handed me over to their external debt collectors who are bullying me to pay R15,000. Please help!” My questions to Vodacom were: “What could or should Mr Sosibo have done differently in this matter? And what could or should Vodacom’s fraud department have done?” The response: “The account has been withdrawn from the debt collecting agency and we have notified the credit bureaus to remove the account from the customer's payment profile. Credit was done and a confirmation letter was sent to Mr Sosibo.” Above both responses was this sentence: “We have contacted the customers and apologised for the inconvenience.”Inconvenience doesn’t cover it, Vodacom. Not even close. The questions around Sosibo’s fraudulent account experience – both ignored – were a genuine attempt to get useful information in order to help others who find themselves in that all-too-common predicament.
Yes, credit to the network for righting the wrongs – and such wrongs are by no means restricted to that network – but the lack of acknowledgement that they are both serious issues, and failure to provide an explanation for what went wrong and what will change as a result, is disturbing. These are not issues of inconvenience. They are unacceptable consumer abuses, and should not be tolerated. Staff should be disciplined, processes changed and consumer engagements closely monitored for tone and appropriateness.  And authentic apologies.
#SHELFIEMind the gap: Richard Sherman was none too pleased with Woolworths new wrap packaging. “The section in the middle under the label is empty,” he tweeted this week. “This is a clear attempt to mislead. They have changed this packaging recently, and I think it also uses more plastic this way.” Woolworths responded by saying the wrap range had been “redeveloped” and its packaging changed. “The packaging was amended to accommodate the increased length of the wrap, and to better protect the product. The base of the wrap is intended to be positioned flush against the divider while the positioning of the label will naturally cover the base of the wrap.  This is not done to conceal the length of the wrap.”

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