Free legal advice from a bot, e-mail cancellations and customs advice: Watch-outs of the week

24 April 2023 - 16:24
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Don’t let a cellphone company employee bully you into cancelling via their call centre. Stock photo.
Don’t let a cellphone company employee bully you into cancelling via their call centre. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Nenetus

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

Don’t let them tell you you can’t cancel via e-mail

I’ve noticed a worrying trend in a few e-mails I’ve recently received  from people battling to cancel their cellphone contracts. They’re put off in all sorts of ways.

“You can’t cancel now. It’s too early”, or “You can’t cancel by e-mail, only by phone”.

It’s nonsense.

The Consumer Protection Act allows you to cancel a fixed-term contract such as a cellphone contract at any time by giving a month’s notice “in writing or other recorded manner and form”, namely a recorded phone call.

Farrah called MTN in July 2022 to give a month’s notice to cancel a data contract because, as she told me: “They said it can only be done via the phone and not e-mail.”

She can prove it. She has an e-mail from someone at MTN Retentions which reads: “Please note that you cannot cancel via e-mail and if you wish to cancel your current contract. Please call our call centre on 135 from your MTN phone”.

Even though she did what she was told, her SIM was cancelled but her debit order was not.

MTN sorted that out after my intervention, and confirmed customers can cancel “in writing or via a call centre”.

“It is unclear why our agent had advised our customer incorrectly on this matter,” MTN said. “Our quality assurance team will access the quality and contents of the recording, and the necessary actions will be taken should our agent be found to have misled the customer.”

Don’t let any cellphone company person bully you into cancelling via their call centre. Do it by e-mail if you want to, after ensuring you have the correct e-mail address. At least that way you’ll have your own proof, and won’t have to beg the cellphone company to give you access to a cancellation call recording.

Fancy free legal advice from a bot?

Legal&Tax, an authorised FSP providing legal expense insurance, and Legal Interact have launched an AI lawyer using the Open AI/ChatGPT framework and the South African legal system to provide “accurate insights”. And via WhatsApp, nogal.

General manager Darren Cohen stresses the AI lawyer isn't a fully fledged lawyer but has been contextualised to provide answers that align with the South African legal system.

Here’s their watch-out: “It is recommended users check in with a qualified Legal&Tax professional before making any legal decisions.”

Or any legal professional.

At the moment the Legal&Tax AI lawyer is free to use, other than data costs, but “in time” it will be available on a subscription basis, and to existing Legal&Tax legal plan clients.

“We are confident this new AI technology will help extend the massive strides South Africa has made in ensuring every citizen has access to justice,” Cohen said.

I did a quick trial with consumer rights-related questions, and found it to be a bit of a hit and miss affair.

I got a great answer to “Am I legally entitled to access to a recording of my contractual conversation with a company?” In short, yes.

But when I asked, “Can a company refuse to honour the Consumer Protection Act warranty if I don’t have the product’s original packaging?”, I got: “Sorry, I could not find anything for that.”  Answer: no.

And to “Do I have the benefit of a cooling-off period if I buy something online?”, I got “I am struggling to understand your request.” Answer, yes, you can send it back, at your cost, within seven days of delivery, and the supplier must refund you within 30 days.

To be fair, when I shared my experience with Cohen, he came back to me to say: “I can see where the AI lost you and have asked our developers to investigate it. It should have been able to answer all your questions.”

It seems I’m in no danger of being replaced by AI just yet.

Here’s the WhatsApp link.

Bear this in mind if you leave something personal overseas

Did you know that if you are sent a gift and the sender declares the value on the package as being greater than the equivalent of R1,400, you will be made to pay customs duty and VAT on the total price of the item? Very careful attention needs to be paid to that declared amount.

You can only receive two gifts valued at less than R1,400 a year, that is customs-free parcels.

If the parcel contains wine, spirits, tobacco or perfume, no rebate applies. Full customs duty is payable, gift or not.

If you are sending your own belongings, or those of a friend, by post or courier, the recipient could be asked to pay a small fortune to be reunited with their own possessions.

Pat, who lives in the UK, wrote to me about her South African cousin who travelled to the UK recently to visit her family and left behind a dress when she returned.

“It was a lovely dress and had obviously had been worn, so I parcelled it up and paid a lot of money to have it couriered back to her in South Africa. The customs forms were completed with 'ladies dress' used in the description.

“For insurance purposes you have to state the replacement cost of the item if it goes missing, which I did, and SA customs have sent her a bill of R2,645 for import duties and VAT.

“This is outrageous. The dress is her own property and I was returning it to her.

“I was informed the return of personal effects attract no VAT, but the company won’t release the dress to her until that amount is paid.”

My research reveals goods “left behind” by travellers and subsequently imported into South Africa at a later date have to be accompanied by form DA304 and P1.160 documents, available online. Or the sender could simply send the item as a gift and ensure the declared value is less than R1,400.

 GET IN TOUCH: You can contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via e-mail: or on Twitter: @wendyknowler.

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