One of the aims of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) is to promote responsible consumer behaviour. Based on the experience gained from our pro bono* consumer law clinics, Louise Bick has identifi ed ten responsibilities which consumers should be aware of in order to fully enjoy their consumer rights and understand what responsible consumer behaviour entails.
You have the right to receive information in a way that is understandable. But, you still need to read agreements, including the terms and conditions, before signing. If you are unsure about anything, you need to ask questions so nothing is unclear. It will be too late to say "I didn't understand what I signed" after the agreement has been signed.
Like a cavity in your tooth, letters from creditors are not going to go away. The longer you ignore them, the worse the situation will become. It is your responsibility to react to these letters because (in some instances), if you do not, you effectively give up certain of your consumer rights.
For example, by law, credit providers have to give you the option of seeking help from a debt counsellor before they can take action against you. If you ignore one of their notices (for ten business days or more) the credit provider can take you to court.
If you receive any kind of legal document, such as a summons or notice of motion, react as quickly as possible because you are given a limited number of days to respond. The amount of time you have will be in the document. You should take this seriously because if you do not, a court judgement could be taken against you without you being there.
Write down as much as you can – from simple details such as the name of the person that you spoke to at a consumer complaints desk, to more important details such as discussions and resulting arrangements. If you ever have a legal problem at a later stage, it will be far easier to prove the facts if you have them in writing. The CPA recognises how important it is to have documentary proof and states that a supplier must provide you with a complete sales record of the transaction.
Correct errors timeously. If you see something strange, for example an amount on your statement or a deduction on your payslip, deal with it as it happens. It will be far more diffi cult to reverse charges or deductions after a few months.
Check quotations and prices before accepting them. According to the CPA, you are entitled to a written quotation for any repair or maintenance services over R1 in value. It is your responsibility to review this quotation and authorise the work to be done. The CPA also requires prices to be displayed and may not force a consumer to pay a price higher than the displayed price.
Consumers often get caught up in the excitement of a sale, particularly when the goods or services are marketed directly by telephone, email or in person. The CPA allows you to reconsider a purchase made as a result of direct marketing. But it is your responsibility to reconsider and inform the supplier of your decision in writing, within fi ve business days from the date on which the transaction was concluded or the goods were delivered to you.
Consumers have the right to complain to the relevant Ombudsman of certain service industries (e.g. Banking, Credit, Motor, Press, Short and Long Term Insurance), who will try to mediate between you and the supplier to solve the issue. It is your responsibility to choose respectable suppliers that are governed by these bodies if you wish to rely on this option.
It is your responsibility to try to resolve your consumer rights issue with the supplier directly. Certain resources will only be accessible once you have done so. As an example, the Credit Ombudsman will only investigate your dispute after you have taken it to the credit provider or credit bureau concerned, and given them twenty business days to attempt to resolve the dispute.
Think about the consequences of overspending – personal, fi nancial and environmental – and resist the temptation. Be aware of the impact of your consumer behaviour on your own pocket and the community around you.
Tell others what you learn about consumer rights and responsibilities. The National Consumer Forum highlights the following consumer responsibility: "organize together as consumers to develop the strength and infl uence and to promote and protect our interests". The CPA allows for recognised consumer protection groups to act and protect the interests of consumers individually or collectively.
Know your rights, know your responsibilities and empower others to do the same.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.