Signing ‘blind’ can be a nasty eye-opener

Many a business contract contains a paragraph, buried deep within the small print, which essentially says that nothing a salesperson may have told you, counts for anything.

With the deepest respect for all the decent, honest salespeople, consumers would do well to remember that when asked to sign something.

Anything.

If you haven’t got time to read the small print, don’t sign. It’s as simple as that.

Unfortunately, a great many consumers are too hasty or too trusting to read those documents before signing, and in those few pen-to-paper seconds they create for themselves all kinds of financial drama.

I see it in my inbox every day.

Some businesses, it seems to me, are designed around consumers’ tendency not to read what they’re asked to put their signatures to.

They include some timeshare deals, those “loan applications” which are actually a long-term subscription to a telephonic advice service, the business directory application which is commitment to pay a hefty up-front amount for a two-year listing in some vague online directory, and the “free” cosmetics trial advertised on Facebook, which is anything but.

And then there’s the “just sign here for free training at the gym” line which is intended to get you committed to a two- or three-year gym membership.

But of course, you have no way of proving that that’s what the salesman told you.

In November, 19-year-old student Slindile Maphumulo was stopped at The Workshop in Durban by a salesman in the centre’s promotional area.

“I was rushing to get to college and said I can’t afford to go to gym, but he said it’s fine, I can have a free week in the gym, so I quickly signed the paper he put in front of me – I thought it was my free pass – and went on my way.

“The stupidest thing I did was to give him my bank card. I wasn’t thinking straight and he took the account number.”

A month later, she received an SMS from Body Lab, telling her she owed R200, and then another, and then came a threat of legal action and blacklisting.

The “paper” she signed was the opposite of a “free pass” – it was a contract for a 24-month gym membership at Body Lab’s Southway, Durban branch, at R200 per month.

Sadly, I’ve heard this story many times, about this particular gym and others.

Right at the top of the document Maphumulo signed, as well as immediately below the signature area, the following words appear in capital letters: “THIS IS A CONTRACT. NOT A VOUCHER. NO FREE MONTH.”

While that does indeed constitute full, open disclosure by Body Lab, the words also suggest that those signing it are very likely to have been given the verbal impression that they were signing something which was not a contract, but rather a voucher for a free stint at the gym.

Body Lab’s general manager Nico Grobler said the company denied any misrepresentation, pointing out that the contract was in layman’s terms. Maphumulo had not only signed the contract but handed over her banking details and signed a debit order, he said.

“She simply cannot allege she did not know she was signing a contract.”

She had also put her signature next to a clause explaining that she had a five-business day cooling-off period in which to cancel the contract, and yet she had not done so, Grobler said.

He invited Maphumulo to submit a cancellation letter, upon which her contract will be cancelled “and the file will be closed”, he said.

I’m awaiting confirmation of whether that means there will be no penalty levied and the debt will not be pursued, in which case Maphumulo did get a free pass in the end. And a very important lesson.

Our children become fully fledged adults in the eyes of the law from the age of 18, with full contractual rights. Schools and parents have a duty to warn them of the consequences of signing “blind”.

BUYING WHEELS ONLINE A RISK

A total of 31% of consumers would consider buying a car completely online – from identifying the car, liaising with the dealership, arranging the finance to signing the deal – and then having it delivered to them.

That’s what emerged from a recent study initiated by online motoring portal www.cars.co.za, which had about 1500 motorists completing a survey.

“That statistic really surprised us,” said Cars.co.za co-founder Alastair MacMurray.

“We didn’t expect it to be so high.”

I’d caution that it’s a really bad idea not to inspect and drive a car before you commit, especially in the case of a used car, but even new cars have snags and are known to have little bodywork mishaps before delivery.

Just last week I was contacted by a man who’d bought a year-old luxury car from a prestigious dealership online, trusting that all would be well, but the car was delivered with multiple problems which he’s now battling to get rectified.

The survey results were also a wake-up call for dealerships in terms of how quickly consumers expect them to respond to a lead – 20% of respondents expected to be contacted within two hours of posting a lead, and 50% within 12 hours.

The advent of the smartphone has had a major impact on the way people research and choose the cars they buy.

Whereas 56% of those who visited the cars.co.za site in 2014 did so via phone, that number had surged to 72% last year.

CONTACT WENDY:

E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za

Twitter: @wendyknowler

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