And now?

It's going to be fun and games once people realise the full power of the Consumer Protection Act.

National Consumer Commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala is going to have her hands full once people realise the commission has been set up with the express purpose of protecting their rights.

The National Consumer Commission (NCC) was established at the beginning of April to make companies comply with the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), an all-encompassing piece of legislation that covers issues from false advertising, to contract terms and conditions.

“I can only imagine what's going to happen the day all of SA's millions of adults wake up and realise they don't have to take corporates on by themselves.”

Nicola Mawson, senior journalist, ITWeb

It hands consumers a pretty hefty tool to force companies to act in their best interests, and also protects small firms as long as they have a turnover of less than R2 million a year.

So far, the commissioner has taken it on herself to go after several sectors of the economy, including cellular companies - which everybody loves to hate. While she's issuing compliance notices to force the operators to change their Ts and Cs, she also spends a lot of time running between Pretoria and Cape Town.

All of this doesn't seem to leave her much time to cope with what could become an endless barrage of complaints.

Yet, at the moment, it doesn't seem she has too much to worry about as the office hasn't exactly been well advertised. Apart from newspaper reports covering the Act, and what the commission is doing, there's very little else to indicate it exists.

The NCC doesn't even have a Web site, although one has been registered. E-mailed complaints are routed through the Department of Trade and Industry, although it's pretty difficult to find a link to the commission on that site.

It does have a mention on the National Consumer Forum, which is not surprising, as the non-profit organisation lists all the watchdogs out there, including the Advertising Standards Authority, the National Credit Regulator and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

This lack of publicity is probably just as well, as its call centre took about five minutes to answer the phone when ITWeb tested it the other day.

I can only imagine what's going to happen the day all of SA's millions of adults wake up and realise they don't have to take corporates on by themselves.

The might of the law

[EMBEDDED]Until the Act came in, consumers didn't really have much recourse. Sure, they could send rude e-mails, shout at call centre agents, or use social media to vent their anger. Or folks could drag companies to court - but that's not exactly a cheap option.

Under the CPA, people have the choice of reporting the offender to the NCC, National Consumer Tribunal, Tribunal, or take them on in court.

The Act empowers all of these bodies to issue compliance notices, or fines that could be as much as R1 million for each offence. If firms don't comply with notices from either the commissioner or the tribunal, whoever is in charge faces a year-long stint behind bars.

Not only can people lodge complaints to force companies to sort things out, or replace faulty items, but consumers can lobby together and take companies on in a class action suit, saving mega bucks in what could be a costly exercise.

The Act also led to the rise of specialist law firms that spend a lot of time explaining how companies can make sure they comply.

Who knew?

Despite the rise of a new specialisation, many companies are simply ignoring the law until they are forced to comply. And a hang of a lot don't seem to understand how it works in reality.

The biggest problem with the CPA - and the largest hurdle the NCC faces - will be in interpreting the law. Because it's all encompassing, it's not industry-specific. A lot of companies just don't know how to deal with it.

But judging by the low number of complaints it receives, this isn't going to be a problem - just yet.

Surprisingly, the NCC only received about 400 complaints from Johannesburg residents about the billing crisis. This is a small number in comparison with the 65 000 or so residents that had issues with their bills after the city moved to a SAP system.

The Joburg Advocacy Group, on the other hand, gets so many complaints it is simply unable to help residents anymore and has taken to telling them to go straight to the commission, the only body it believes can help.

The commission's request for comment as to whether the Direct Marketing Association of SA (DMASA) should run the national opt-out registry, despite a Twitter outcry along the lines of setting a wolf to watch sheep, garnered only a handful of responses.

Power to the people

Yet, the Act is a much-needed piece of legislation that has the power to change people's lives for the better. Just have a look at how many complaints are submitted to on a daily basis - pages and pages.

Based on the number of complaints on Hellopeter and how much general conversation is made up of complaints about bad customer service, or someone who's been messed around by a service provider, there's a huge need for the law.

A lot of the complaints seem to be about items that are not available as advertised, or stuff that doesn't do what was promised, or goods that break a few days after purchase, rendering them useless.

Judging by the complaints, a lot of people don't know that they can turn to the NCC for help when, for example, a phone has an out-the-box failure but the seven-day grace period has expired.

Based on some of the postings, it doesn't seem companies realise they are breaking the law when they won't replace the item or give the consumer's money back. Under the Act, people can actually demand either if something has a material defect within six months.

Companies also can't get away with an 'as is' or 'voetstoets' clause either - if something has a defect, it's got to be spelt out in a way that consumers understand.

As soon as people wake up and realise they can take these firms on, the NCC's work load is going to expand exponentially.

Yet, without the proper tools, it just won't be able to cope.

It needs a call centre that doesn't take five minutes to pick up the phone, a Web site that works and allows people to log complaints online, and a huge staff complement to investigate complaints.

The NCC also needs funding to set up its own, independent, do-not-contact database so that people can opt-out of spam without worrying that their information may be compromised, like what happened after the DMASA's database of 39 000 consumers was leaked.

If it doesn't get funding for all of that, it will become just another toothless regulator - like the Independent Communications Authority of SA.

And that's a waste of taxpayers' money and consumers won't be in a better position than they were in March, before the Act came into effect.

The NCC has so much potential to protect all of us - let's hope the powers that be wake up and recognise this fact.

Nicola Mawson

Nicola Mawson is a contributor who hates corruption of any sort. She does not drive a million-rand Beemer and would rather walk.

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