Consumer complaints: what to do when you had your fingers burnt

By law, we can only provide general information in this blog. This does not constitute or should not replace financial advice from a broker or a relevant professional.

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Have you ever felt so angry about bad service or a defective product that you would make a spitting cobra look like a gentle house pet? Have you ever felt trapped because you do not have the wherewithal to hire a flame-throwing lawyer that will burn (verbal and legal) holes in your enemy’s lame excuses and empty promises? Have you ever wished for a superhero to pin them down to extract the justice you feel you deserve?

Lawsuits are expensive and can drag on for years. You may invest more in legal costs than what the product or service was worth and with no guarantee of a favourable outcome. There are some much more productive (and legal!) alternatives to spamming the company’s complaints desk with hundreds of protest emails or taking a knife to the dishonest rep’s tires!

If your claim is worth up to R20 000, you may consider taking the erring party to the small claims court. You can find more details about the how, where, what and so on at www.justice.gov.za.

To Ombud or not to Ombud

The Ombud is an appointed official or body that has been given the authority to investigate public complaints against a company or an organisation. They can give advice or mediate between you and the company in question. The determinations by the Ombud is binding on the company or individual providing a service but not on you.

There are quite a few Ombuds, actually. Each deal with a different sector or have a specialist function. Their main aim is to find ways to settle disputes between customers and companies fairly and in accordance with the relevant laws, without involving the legal system. Their services are free to consumers.

Your complaint must meet the following criteria:

  1. Your dispute is within the frame of reference of the Ombud (you can ask about any exclusions or find the information related to what each Ombud can and cannot do on their websites).
  2. You are not suing the offending party, using another complaints procedure or using the media to expose their wrong-doing whilst engaging the Ombud at the same time.
  3. You can prove that you did all you could do resolve the issue yourself.
  4. It is clear that no crime has been committed by you or the other party.
  5. The event that gave rise to your complaint happened in the last three years.

So what must I do if I want to lodge a complaint?

Scenario 1:

During COVID 19 you realised you will have no choice but to work from home. For this to happen you needed to have fibre installed. Telkom offered what seemed like a good deal and you signed on the dotted line. It is the end of the first month and you have just received a nasty surprise! The company debited you incorrectly – they took a R1000 more than what they were supposed to. What should you do?

  1. Phone Telkom and complain.
  2. If that does not work, go onto the Telkom Facebook page and lodge a complaint there. Head office should respond in a few hours or days.
  3. If that does now work, contact ICASA – the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. Explain that you tried to phone Telkom and then logged onto Facebook and left a message, but still you were ignored. ICASA will give you a reference number and will instruct Telkom to fix the problem within a few days.
Scenario 2:

You had just bought a brand new car. You parked it in the parking lot at the vehicle registration office. Upon you return you found that someone had rear-ended your car and disappeared. Your insurance company does not want to accept that it was not your fault. What should you do?

  1. Lay a complaint in writing with your insurer.
  2. If that does not work, find out who you should contact to dispute the assessment of the accident and contact them.
  3. If that does not work, go online and contact the Ombud for short-term insurance. They will ask you to explain in writing why you want to lay a complaint, what you did to resolve the issue and then they will intervene.

Before you contact the Ombud make sure you have:

  1. Done your homework.
    • Make sure you understand all the documents you were given, such as sales agreements, contracts and policies.
    • Make sure you record everything: dates and types of contact you had and with whom. All the actions you had taken, all the actions they had taken, and any promises made and the outcomes of these. Keep copies of everything!
    • Try to escalate the matter yourself. If you are unhappy with how your complaint was dealt with ask for the matter to be passed on to a more senior person. Make sure to get their contact details and how and by when you can expect a response.
  2. Filled in the forms. The different Ombuds have forms available online that you need to complete. You can phone for advice as well as visit the offices in person.
  3. Stuck to the facts as politely as possible. Explain your case in a logical order and offer any evidence that you can back up (when dealing with a company’s complaints department it is always helpful to send an email that summarises your discussion and ask them to confirm receipt thereof).
  4. Kept paying. Remember, a contract is an agreement between you and the other party that leaves you with legal responsibilities, even if you, later on, disagree with it. These obligations stay in place until the agreement has changed! The Ombud may decide in your favour and order the company to change the particulars of the contract or refund you, but this will only apply once the official determination had been made.
SOME OF THE MOST COMMON OMBUDS (there are many!)
NAMEDEALS WITHWEBSITE
Ombudsman for Short-Term Insurance Car insurance, household insurance, cell phone insurance, travel insurance, disability insurance, etc.www.osti.co.za
Ombudsman for Long-Term InsuranceLife insurance and Risk policies www.ombud.co.za
Pension Funds Adjudicator Private sector pension and provident funds as well as retirement annuitieswww.pfa.org.za
Ombudsman for Banking Services Banking services and productswww.obssa.co.za
Credit OmbudsmanComplaints from consumers that are negatively affected by credit bureau information or who have disputes with a credit providerwww.creditombud.org.za
Council for Medical Schemes Services and products offered by medical aid schemes as well as regulatory supervision of private health financing through medical planswww.medicalschemes.com
National Consumer CommissionServices and products from shops, businesses or companies, especially relating to compliance issues with the Consumer Protection Act and your rights as a consumerwww.thencc.gov.za
Independent Communications Authority of South AfricaServices and products in the telecommunications, broadcasting and postal industrieswww.icasa.org.za
FAIS OmbudFinancial services or products from Financial Service providers or their representativeswww.faisombud.co.za
Tax OmbudsmanService, procedural or administrative issues related to the South African Revenue Service (SARS)www.taxombud.gov.za

Final words

It is good to know that you can complain if you are wronged. It is better to make good decisions based on doing your homework before the time and listening to sound advice!

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