Sunday, September 27, 2020

Barking at the caravan of consumer abuse

After more than 250 newspaper articles spanning over six years, Richard Harriman can rightfully claim to have put consumer rights awareness on the national agenda

Richard Harriman passes for a caretaker of some higher wisdom within Botswana’s consumer movement. It is tempting to describe him as high priest of sorts ÔÇô an ironic portrayal for a self-confessed atheist.

With his wife Kate, they have formed a formidable duo that has taken cudgels on behalf of the small man. In the process they have claimed the scalps of some of the major leaguers of local business ÔÇô ranging from furniture stores to supermarkets and financial institutions.

What would be known as Consumer Watchdog has its genesis in the Harrimans moving to Botswana more than a decade back. They were coming from Britain, where the consumer movement is developed.
“When we moved to Botswana we found enormous amount of abuse,” Harriman recalls. “Consumers were ripped off with impunity. Loan sharks could do as they liked. It was so glaring. It was not even overt. It was so in your face. I don’t think people knew they had rights.”

One person who apparently deserves a lot of credit is Gabz FM’s former morning show host, Shombie Ellis. After a fortuitous meeting through a different project they were both involved in, they exchanged notes. It turned out that Ellis was equally troubled by the raw deal customers were served most of the time. She dedicated a weekly slot in her show to address consumer awareness ÔÇô and the Consumer Watchdog was born. To do that part of the show, Kate was brought on board. Later, a weekly newspaper column followed. That was about six years back. Today the Consumer Watchdog has grown to encompass the radio programme, as well as weekly columns in two national newspapers. In all instances, the bad guys are publicly named and shamed, while the star performers acknowledged.
Then there are the scams. The Harrimans hear from people who have been hit in different ways. One moment it’s someone who has had an encounter with a travel agency that promised a flight and accommodation package, but failed to issue a ticket after taking the money. The next it’s relatives concerned about a family member who has been contacted by a stranger claiming to be in a refugee camp and in need of assistance to transfer their late father’s fortune out of the country. How about the claim about a miraculous box that can magically multiply your money?

“These scams affect everyone,” says Harriman. “No one is immune to deception and fraud. We hear from people of all levels, professions, and educational backgrounds. Companies can fall for this as well.”

He narrates the story of a filling station manager in Sowa who was duped, not once, but twice. He was approached by two men with what they claimed was a miraculous box. All he had to do was place money in the box and it would multiply. To demonstrate the ostensible efficacy of the box, they placed a bank note into the box and with a mixture of distraction and fast-talking they produced two notes. Convinced that he was about to hit the big time, he placed P70, 000 in the box. As soon as the money was in the box, they did a little act of distraction and disappeared. The following day, two accomplices of the original crooks approached the same victim and guess what? This time they persuaded him to put another P15, 400 in the box. Once again, the filling station manager was left to count his losses.

“That is to be staggeringly gullible. To run a filling station you have to be a smart guy, but this guy was foolish. Even those of us who think they are sceptics can fall for it. The question is, why? Almost all scams rely on naivety, and people liking simple ideas and solutions to problems. If you go to a cardiologist, he’ll explain [your condition] in technical terms that are difficult to understand. But a homeopath or one of these people who claim to balance your energy levels will provide an explanation in one sentence. It’s complete nonsense but easy to understand. Very few of us will win the lottery. Most of us have to work through night, study hard, and take a second job.

It’s very rare that there are easy answers and solutions ÔÇô though we want them,” says Harriman.
It is the same gullibility that leads people to questionable religious organisations. Readers of local newspapers would recall Harriman’s sparring matches with the Church of Scientology, which he calls “a so-called church founded by a fraudster, and run by fraudsters”.

“I am out of closet as an atheist, but I have nothing against religious people who are good and charitable. But when you look at the religion on DStv ÔÇô those are charlatans and criminals who are just ripping people off, lying, and promising them riches. The thing that offends me is people who prey on the vulnerable. They are targeting Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, some parts of South Africa, and Zimbabwe because they know that people have HIV,” says Harriman. “People who prey on the sick are absolute scumbags. Some of the churches have told their followers to cast aside ARVs. If one person stops taking medication and dies, I think you have blood on your hands.”

Even against such incidents as the one involving the filling station manager, Harriman says there is notable change in people’s awareness than was the case, say, 10 ÔÇô 15 years back. Consumers are more aware of their rights, and there is a growing body of individuals who refuse to take anything at face value, especially if it’s too good to be true.

Among the achievements is that, with only a couple of exceptions, many stores now adhere to the Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations of 1974 which demand that when stores sell on credit, they must warn their customers what the total cost is going to be.

About three years ago, the Consumer Watchdog sent a question to all stores that offer goods on credit to ask if they were aware of what the law expected of them. One of the stores that have operated in Botswana for close to 30 years was on the phone within an hour to plead ignorance. But the management made an assurance to comply. A couple of others followed suit.

“There is one furniture store that is left showing contempt for our laws. One of them said it is bound by South African laws. But this is Botswana. As a joke we put a map of Botswana on our website to show them where Botswana is, and that we are not a tenth province of South Africa. If they want to trade here, they must abide by our laws. It’s not too much to ask,” Harriman says.
The bad news is that he cannot give credit to government for the successes. He points out that the battle has been waged by newspapers, private radio stations, volunteers and organisations such as the Consumer Watchdog to spread education.

“The problem is there is a massive gap in public education in schools. Consumer education should be in the school curriculum. It’s shameful and disgraceful that kids come out of school without this kind of knowledge. Consumer rights ÔÇô things like learning to read adverts critically, and calculating interest rates ÔÇô these should be taught in schools as armour for kids to use later in life,” Harriman says.

He faults the Consumer Protection Unit for not doing enough in terms of public education and enforcement of consumer laws and regulations.

“The laws are wonderful. They are a huge arsenal that gives the CPU awesome power. They can demand your cooperation, or even that you open books of your company. They can go to the High Court and apply for your company to stop trading if you flout the rules. They have the power to start an enormous process. But we still find expired food on supermarkets’ shelves. It’s shameful that law enforcement agencies aren’t doing what they are meant to do.”

While the Consumer Protection Regulations stipulate that illiteracy, disability, and language shouldn’t be used against anyone, Harriman finds it offensive that everyday people are made to sign contracts in English, though they do not understand the language. His suggestion is that such contracts should be summarized in Setswana or Ikalanga for the benefit of the majority that does not understand English, and yet are the major customers of service providers that issue some of these contracts.

It’s not all bad news with government-backed institutions. He’s a self-proclaimed fan of the Non-Bank Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority (NBFIRA) and Botswana Training Authority (BOTA) for acting decisively against organisations that fall foul of the laws that they enforce. Another positive development that Harriman notes, which the Consumer Watchdog has advocated for, is the decision to put the laws of Botswana on-line. His wish is for government to take the next step ÔÇô to summarise the laws in Setswana to make them understandable for a wider section of the nation.
At the beginning of the Consumer watchdog, there were a few threats to sue. When the first letter came, Kate read it on air.

“But the law is sensible. The law says if it’s truly in public interest, or a reasonably worded complaint, then it’s not defamation. The other thing is you can’t sue for defamation if you have no reputation. A lot of them now take it on the jaw; they fix the problem and apologise. They have learnt that to sue is not the solution,” says Harriman. “Actually, we like it better when a complaint is made, and it’s fixed, and the customer is happy.”

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.