Peekaboo, we see through you! Media firm 'a fraud'
Numerous business owners are claiming to have been defrauded by Peekaboo and Absolute Media
When Joyce Chibwesha was offered a chance to advertise her elegant lodge in Sandton overlooking the willowed banks of the Sand River, she couldn’t resist the offer of a huge discount to advertise in a women’s magazine. The fact that well-known socialite Edith Venter was indicated as a director helped seal the deal for her.
Little did she know the four-page spread in The Business Woman magazine would never materialise. According to the presentation the Peekaboo and Absolute Media group made to her to market their company, they have featured businesswomen Basetsana Kumalo, Transnet Freight Rail executive manager Cynthia Ndaba and Kutana Investments Group CEO Thoko Mokgosi-Mwantembe on their cover before.
Chibwesha, 69, is among the 35 business owners in the hospitality, beauty and hunting industry who allege they have been defrauded by Peekaboo and Absolute Media in South Africa, after promises of advertising that never materialised.
At the heart of the claims – and now a police and forensic firm investigation – are promises of hugely discounted advertising tariffs, accommodation and trips in return for advertising, and claims of government support.Business owners were allegedly told they would receive a 50% discount on their advertising cost, which would be covered by government “to support and help local businesses”. They were reportedly all shown a dummy magazine of how their business could be “showcased”.
Also included in the investigation are claims the media company promised among other things coverage in the magazines Bridal Bliss, Unique Destinations, Diplomat, Absolute Nails, Business Woman and The Big Five.
Copies of the monthly magazines, which featured even Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma and other well-known personalities on its cover, could not be found on the shelves this month.
And, although Peekaboo Media CEO Lance Whatmore maintained last week he had an agreement with the departments of Trade and Industry, Tourism and International Relations and Co-operation to offer discounted adverts to companies, he could not provide proof of the agreement. None of these departments had any knowledge of the agreement either.Andre van Wyk, senior investigator at IRS Forensic Investigations, said he had received complaints from people from as far away as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mozambique and the US claiming the media company did not deliver on its promises to clients. Their requests for refunds allegedly also came to naught.
Chibwesha finally resorted to laying a charge against Whatmore in a bid to recoup her losses. Her deal with the company was to provide accommodation in lieu of advertising, she explained. She alleges Whatmore and his family raked up a bill of R25,000 on drinks and nine days of accommodation at her establishment two years ago.
“I was told to accommodate Peekaboo employees in a family room and single room respectively for a week in April 2016 in exchange for coverage in the magazine.
“Although it was agreed they would only stay for five days in lieu of payment for the advert, Lance and his wife, using different names, extended their stay.“During our e-mail correspondence with the company, I was always assured that everything these two guests consumed beyond the initial agreement would be paid by the company before they checked out. But that never happened.”
Frustrated by the lack of response, Chibwesa went to the business address indicated on their letterhead, only to discover it belonged to the American Embassy.
Another alleged victim, Aubrey Williams, owner of the Fountain Guesthouse in Bryanston in Johannesburg, calculated about R200,000 was lost by businesses in the hospitality industry. He had been instrumental in gathering a group of all those affected in his industry.
Williams also alleges his research shows that Absolute Media and Peekaboo used “fictitious staff members” to contact his victims.
“The style and tone of writing of the majority of his workers is similar to that of Lance Whatmore. Most of his staff are never available for telephone calls and the pictures used are randomly taken from the Internet.
A Google image search on Kirstie Clement, who is the managing editor at Peekaboo Media, reportedly shows she is one of the tutors at TalkList, an online tool to learn.
Yet she was corresponding with various Peekaboo clients. One of them, Charlene Dos Santos, owner of the Beauty Box in Northcliff, requested a meeting with her but she never showed up.Equally puzzling is Zaakirah Cassiem, indicated as the financial manager of the company, who supposedly joined them in 2003 with a business diploma from Damelin in Durban. Many of the victims have written numerous e-mails to Cassiem in relations to payments, payment arrangements and invoices and she has written back to them. Yet a Google image search of her corresponds with that of a model for a hair product.
According to Williams, who is now trying to get more businesses to open cases against Peekaboo and Absolute Media, the amount calculated could be more but well-established businesses do not want to come forward as they believe the amounts were too little for them to go to court.
“They [Peekaboo] called me three times in 2014 with their offer. I wasn’t interested at first, but then they asked to meet in person. Their presentation included a dummy magazine for me to have a look at what they could offer my business.“All documentation, which had logos from DTI, Department of Tourism and the tourism council body, looked legit and I bought into the idea that R34,000 had been sponsored by these departments and I only have to pay R5,600 for the four-page spread.
“Immediately after the meeting they hounded me for payment, as they said they had strict deadlines and needed to send photographers to my place – something they never did.”
Van Wyk said they have a total of seven formal complaints laid against the company.
The Namibian Professional Hunting Association had to issue a warning to all its members after 134 members wrote to them complaining about how they were allegedly defrauded, he said.
“I have good reason to believe there are thousands of alleged victims around several countries. We need to just reach them so they become aware we are investigating this matter.”
Businesses affected include Black Olive, a boutique wedding and events company based in Northcliff, 10 members of the Namibia Professional Hunting Association who paid close to R100,000 for marketing in a hunting magazine, and Hamilton Manor and Casabianca Lodge, as well as Swift Flite charters who flew Peekaboo Media staff to the 2016 Tourism Indaba in Durban.According to Audit Bureau of Circulation general manager Charles Beiles, none of the 12 publications listed by Peekaboo and Absolute Media are registered with the body. This despite claims that one of the magazines, aimed at business women, had a minimum circulation of 53,000 copies and thus a reach to over 229,000 at 4.3 readers per copy.
Department of Tourism acting spokesman Lulama Duma said the Department of Tourism does not have any agreement with Peekaboo Media or Whatmore to provide adverting discounts to any organisation.
Department of Trade and Industry spokesperson Sidwell Medupe said their advertising campaigns are only for programmes and services offered by the department. They offer incentive schemes to companies, but this does not include advertising.Dirco spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said the department had no agreement with Peekaboo Media and/or Whatmore. “We do not enter into such agreements with any individual or entity. It is regrettable that the name of the department is clearly being used to scam unsuspecting individuals.
“We are also aware the matter has been brought to the attention of law enforcement agencies for investigation. We are hopeful the law will take its course,” said Mabaya.
“Peekaboo Media had allegedly defrauded companies to the tune of R280,000 so far, but the amount could increase.”
Whatmore promised to provide Times Select with, among other things, proof he had the contract with the government departments for using their logos, a contract for the discounted advertising rates and copies of his newspaper, but by Friday he hadn’t done so and his phone was off.
• Edith Venter was only prepared to say she parted ways with the company after a “pay dispute”.