Consumer news you can use on car buys, parts, contracts and debit orders
Watch-outs of the week
In this weekly segment of bite-sized chunks of useful information, consumer champion Wendy Knowler summarises news you can use:
Beware the ‘voetstoets’ vehicle
“I went to buy a used car from a private individual.”
When an e-mail starts like that, my heart sinks because I know what’s coming. Sure enough, Mr C’s story did not end well.
The car was advertised on Facebook (first red flag). The buyer disclosed some faults, which gave him peace of mind, and he got a quote from his mechanic to repair them.
What the seller didn’t tell him was that the sunroof wasn’t working. It was sealed shut with silicone, something he didn’t notice because “I picked up the car late” [always refuse to collect a car in dim light]. That night the heavens opened when the car was not under cover and the seats and floor were soaked as a result.
He was initially promised a refund by the seller, but he later refused.
“Now they insist they told me about the sunroof, but I would not have bought the car had I known that.
“The agreement I signed says it’s a voetstoets deal, but there was no mention of the sunroof. Please assist me urgently. The little money I had for a car seems to be gone down the drain”
Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do.
If a car is bought from a private seller or on auction, the Consumer Protection Act’s six-month warranty does not apply.
That means the seller can refuse to offer you any recourse at all, which makes a private sale an incredibly risky way to buy a car, unless you’re buying from a known and trusted person.
Contract expired, so why am I still being debited?
This is one of the most misunderstood issues in consumerland. Many people believe when their two-year cellphone contract or gym contract “expires”, they are off the hook financially, without having to engage with the company. Wrong!
According to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), you still have to give 20 business days’ notice (essentially a month) in writing of cancellation. If your contract ends in April, get that notification sent this month if you want your last debit order to be in April. Otherwise it will roll over to a “month-to-month” basis, which means you can cancel without penalty, but still only with a month’s written notice.
Bridget’s e-mail is a variation of one I receive regularly: “My husband had a gym contract which was meant to end last year, and when we queried why he is still being debited, we were told the contract is now on a month-to-month basis.
“They are expecting him to be the one to call and cancel. Isn’t it their job to know when to stop debiting one’s account?
“Surely they should phone and ask if you want to extend the contract or not?”
Well, yes, the CPA does require the gym or cellphone company to notify you in writing of the impending expiry date of the contract, between 40 and 80 business days before the expiry date.
That notice must include:
- any material changes that would apply if the agreement was to be renewed, or if it continued beyond the expiry date; and
- the options available to you on the expiry of the fixed term, and the fact that it will automatically continue on a month-to-month basis unless you inform them to terminate the contract or agree to a renewal - what the cellphone industry misleadingly refers to as an “upgrade”.
However, those notifications are often dressed up as marketing messages which many consumers ignore. Beware!
Car spares - choose carefully
If you buy a spare part for your car, can you take it back for a refund if you don’t need it after all?
No, you can’t.
The only time you can get a refund for something you’ve bought, if there’s nothing wrong with it - that is, it is not defective - is if you bought it online or as a result of direct marketing. Otherwise, the retailer is not legally obliged to refund you unless the part is defective, or you asked for a specific part and were given another, in which case you’d need a detailed invoice in order to prove the mis-selling, so always insist on one.
Car parts suppliers are notoriously bad at adhering to the Consumer Protection Act, so choose your supplier very carefully, having quizzed them on their returns policies.
Don’t be bullied into a debit order
I’m often asked if a company can force their customers to sign debit order mandates.
Here’s the answer from the Payments Association of SA: “We are not aware of any legislation, regulation or rule governing and/or prescribing the nature or type of payment for goods or service between consumers and service providers/sellers. Consumers enter into a contract with sellers for the provision of services or sale of goods.
“Payment and the method of payment is a secondary aspect flowing from the main contract, and one agreed upon by the parties.
“This relationship, in most instances, falls under the ambit of the Consumer Protection Act.”
There’s certainly nothing in the CPA which compels consumers to pay via debit order, if that’s what the supplier is insisting on.
If you would to prefer to pay via EFT every month instead, make sure you pay what you’re required to pay and by the specified date, or you’ll end up being punished with fees and interest.