A lot of slick operators make a very good living out of taking advantage of the fact that most consumers don’t pay enough attention to boring admin tasks and can’t be bothered to read the small print.
A Durban-based operation has been doing just that in recent months, with an approach to mainly small companies, such as medical practices, service stations and hair salons, creating the impression that they are wanting confirmation of their listings in Telkom’s white and yellow pages.
The genuine business listings, operated by Telkom’s directory subsidiary Trudon, are billed and paid for every month, along with calls and data usage.
Here’s how those business owners are duped: first they get an e-mail, from a telkomsa.net address, which goes something like this: “Ensure the above attachment is signed and returned to the e-mail address provided at your soonest convenience.
“Please note this is for the business white pages”. And they’re asked to fill it in and fax it back. Those who don’t oblige, get follow-up calls urging them to do so; those who do, get a nasty surprise – a bill for almost R7200. And then the contents of the tiny, almost-impossible-to-read small print becomes apparent.
“Cost of Listing: two hundred and ninety-nine rand, R299 x 24 months, total amount payable on invoice, full contract seven thousand one hundred and seventy-six rand only. Please note this is a 24-month contract.”
The name of the company is Telecom Directory. And if a business doesn’t pay up, they get hounded by debt collectors NCR Legal Debt Collections.
Both businesses are owned by Ashwin Dwarika and registered to a Phoenix, Durban address.
In 2015, Dwarika was operating a company called Directories Services 2, with the same modus operandi; that time it was DDR Legal Collections which did the “debt” collecting, and, like NCR Legal Collections, it claimed on its website to be based in Sandton, with five branches around the country.
In recent months, I’ve heard from many a business owner or staff member who has fallen into this carefully laid trap, including a speech therapist and a motor dealership in Pietermarizburg, a hair salon owner in Somerset West, a Johannesburg homeopath and a dentist in Port Elizabeth.
Linda Middlebrook, a bookkeeper with Neil Woolridge Motors of Pietermarizburg, said she’d become “too frightened” to answer the phone at work after unwittingly responding to Telecom’s e-mail, unaware that she was signing “a legal document”, and then being hounded for payment.
“I’m not even authorised to sign a contract,” she said.
As for what the claimed R7200 would be buying the businesses in terms of listings, a Telecom Online Business Directory does exist.
It has 2471 company listings, but with no photos and no descriptions; just the bare minimum contact information. It’s hard to imagine how they could serve any marketing purpose at all.
To add insult to injury, in the case of Woolridge Motors, the demands for payment are being sent to the non-existent “Woodridge Motors”.
Repeated attempts to get a response from Telecom and NCR Legal Collections to e-mails sent to the addresses – supplied by them and currently in use to correspond with businesses – went unanswered.
My advice, given the entirely misleading, unconscionable nature of this “contact”, is not to pay, certainly not without the receipt of a summons.
ASA issues warning.
The Advertising Standards Authority recently alerted business owners to this “apparent scam”, having received many complaints from its victims regarding the misleading “offer” it’s been sending.
“We have ruled against the advertising, but direct mailers are a difficult area to enforce,” said acting ASA CEO Gail Schimmel.
The ASA received complaints from Somerset West-based psychologist Dr Torsten Lamb and Estelle Gerber against Ashwin Dwarika, trading as Telecom Directory.
“All reasonable attempts” were made to elicit a response from Dwarika, the ASA said. He finally sent an e-mail containing a signed template completed by Dr Lamb, an amended invoice sent to him with a reduced fee of R3588, and a link to his listing on the Telecom Directory.
“It did not, however, address the merits of the matter, or comment on Ms Gerber’s case.”
In a lengthy ruling, the ASA directorate concluded that Telecom’s approach “creates a misleading impression about the true nature and purpose of its product offering, and that it deliberately obfuscates material information in a manner likely to deceive consumers”.
Incidentally, Dr Lamb’s expensive entry on the obscure online Telecom Directory does not give any clues as to the nature of his practice and has an incomplete address. His phone numbers do appear.
He told In Your Corner that he’d fallen into the “well-laid trap” and was then subjected to “a barrage of phone bullying” to pay up.
His negotiating skills had the company halve the fee being demanded, but on the advice of an attorney, he hasn’t paid it.
When his wife put a post about his experience on a Somerset West social media site, he said, “about 10 people responded, saying they’d also been caught”.