Prescribed debt, testing appliances as soon as you buy them — and how a happy snap can settle a dispute

Consumer journalist Wendy Knowler’s “Watch-outs of the week”

10 July 2021 - 11:12
By wendy knowler AND Wendy Knowler
A debt is considered to be prescribed, in terms of the Prescription Act if, in the previous three years, you have not made any payment towards settling it, acknowledged owing the money in any way or agreed to pay it, or been summonsed in respect of it.
Image: 123RF/ALLAN SWART A debt is considered to be prescribed, in terms of the Prescription Act if, in the previous three years, you have not made any payment towards settling it, acknowledged owing the money in any way or agreed to pay it, or been summonsed in respect of it.

In this weekly segment of bite-sized chunks of useful information, consumer journalist Wendy Knowler summarises news you can use:

Timing is everything

The six-month Consumer Protection Act (CPA) “implied” warranty is an incredibly valuable consumer protection. “Implied” means it’s in place whether the retailer likes it or not — it is obliged to refund, replace or repair a product if it becomes unfit for purpose within six months.

So don’t buy something and put it away for months before using it for the first time, as you’re essentially squandering most or all of that precious protection.

And thanks to reader Rob, I have a new warning — don’t buy a garden shed in the height of summer if you live in the Western Cape or in winter if you live in other parts of the country which get storms in summer.

That's because by the time the outdoor product is put to a proper test by intense weather, your golden six-month CPA warranty will have expired.

Rob bought his shed online last November and erected it the following month. All was fine during summer, he told me, “but during the first winter storm the doors blew in, allowing the wind to buffet the shed off its cement base — it had been screwed to the floor — and blow it into the boundary wall, damaging it further.

“So now much of it is dented and twisted and the doors have been warped.”

As he says, the product is clearly not suitable to be sold as an outdoor shed if it can’t withstand a single Cape storm, but the company is refusing to entertain a claim “after such a lengthy period”.

I intend to take up the case in any event, but if you’re in the market for a garden shed, make sure you time your purchase so you have most of your warranty intact when it’s tested by seasonal storms.

Speaking of timing, when you buy something online you have the benefit of a week’s cooling-off period, during which time you can send it back, whether there is something wrong with it or not, for a full refund, minus the cost of returning it.

That lovely protection comes courtesy of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act. The cooling off period begins on the day of delivery, so open the box and engage with the product immediately if you want the full benefit of that “change your mind” week.

You can’t play the debt prescription card if ...

A debt is considered to be prescribed, in terms of the Prescription Act if, in the previous three years, you have not made any payment towards settling it, acknowledged owing the money in any way or agreed to pay it, or been summonsed in respect of it.

Most, but not all, debts prescribe in three years. A 30-year prescription period applies to mortgage bonds, any debt arising as a result of a judgment and any state-related debt, including traffic fines and TV licences.

The collection of prescribed debts is a massive source of revenue for the debt-collection industry, much of it having been written off by the credit providers and sold to collectors for a few cents in the rand.

They then inflate the original debt with interest and costs and attempt to collect from debtors for their own account.

The Prescription Act was intended to give consumers protection against collectors hounding them to pay those old, inflated debts, but does not preclude collectors from attempting to do so.

An amendment to the National Credit Act in 2015 makes it illegal for collectors to attempt to collect prescribed debts. But there are limitations, the Credit Ombud warned in its annual report this week.

“A consumer who voluntarily chooses to accept liability for a debt and offers to settle the debt prior to that three-year period being up will find themselves liable for payment.”

In a case study shared by the ombud’s office, a complainant logged a dispute claiming prescription on a loan account which was reflecting under his credit profile.

He said he hadn’t admitted to owing the money in three years, nor made a payment, and therefore the debt had prescribed.

“But our investigation revealed that the running of prescription was suspended due to him requesting a settlement letter.

“So he was clearly well aware of the fact that the account and the balance was due and payable, therefore prescription was not confirmed, and he remained liable for payment.”

It is illegal for a prescribed debt to be listed on your credit profile.

It pays to be snap happy

Being snap happy can be of huge benefit to you when you’re in dispute with a service provider.

Take Nadia’s case: she hired a car in April and realised she’d been overcharged for mileage to the tune of several thousand rand.

She could prove it, too — thanks to fact that she’d taken a photo of the car’s odometer when she left the rental company’s depot and again when she returned it.

Still, the company stuck to its guns, telling her their system did not allow for kilometre discrepancies. When she insisted such mistakes were indeed possible, and kept repeating that her photos were irrefutable proof of that, she was eventually told: “Sadly, there is always room for finger errors when things are done manually ...”

She said: “I strongly advise any person who uses a car hire to take a photo of the odometer reading prior to taking and returning the car.”

Excellent advice. And it’s a good idea to do the same when you take your car for a service or repair.

CONTACT WENDY: E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za; Twitter: @wendyknowler; Facebook: wendyknowlerconsumer

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