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LISTEN: No, it’s not Telkom…

If you run a small business and you have a listing in Telkom’s white or yellow pages, or both, be extremely wary of any approach you get about confirming or updating your entry.

Telephone directory

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Trudon, Telkom’s directory partner, has for years warned its customers about companies approaching its advertisers and passing themselves off as Telkom representatives in subtle, clever ways.

In August 2015, Consumerwatch focused on a Durban-based company calling itself Directories Services 2, which was phoning mostly small businesses, allegedly misleading them into believing that they were affiliated to the white and yellow pages. 

They were asking them to submit their updated information and then sending them a bill for R7200, based on tiny and barely legible print on a form that committed them to paying R300 a month for 24 months. 

They assumed they were just “updating” their details for their existing Trudon listings - those white and yellow pages listings that they were already being billed for every month.

And then came the demand for the R7200 and that’s when they realised what they’d been tricked into agreeing to. 

Those who didn't pay got “handed over” to a collections agency - DDR Legal Collections - which began badgering them to pay up.

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At the time I contacted Directories Services 2 - asking what directory they publish, where could I access it, and what its reach was. 

Director, Ashwin Dwarika said that R7200 bought advertising in his directory both in print and online for two years.

But as the company was new, their first directory was only due to be published a few months later, he said, and would be available at information centres and business fairs and there was no online directory at that point either.

After that show I discovered that DDR Legal Collections, which claimed on its website to be based in Sandton with five branches around the country was owned by none other than Mr I (Ashwin) Dwarika. And the address was the same Phoenix address as Directories Services.

In other words, they operated out of the same house in Phoenix, Durban.

Subsequent emails I sent Dwarika went unanswered. 

Fast forward to a few months ago - I started getting a rash of complaints about a Durban-based company called Telecom, with a near identical modus operandi.

I’ve heard from a speech therapist and motor dealership in Pietermarizburg, a hair salon owner in Somerset West, a Joburg homeopath, a dentist in Port Elizabeth and many more.

First they got an email asking them to fill in and sign an attached document.

Then a call pestering them to do so if they didn’t.

In the case of Dr Hein Slabbert of Port Elizabeth, that email stated: “Ensure the attachment is signed and returned to the email address provided at your soonest convenience.  Please note this is for the business white pages.”

Th reference to “white pages” is a clear reference to the Telkom or Trudon phone directory.

And the fact that Telecom email address is [email protected]  entrenches the perception that the businesses are being approached about the directory entry they already have and are paying for.

Is Telecom a new name for Directories Services 2?

Well, Directories Services 2  used to “hand over” people who refused to pay to “DDR Legal Debt Collections” which on its website gave a Sandton address and stated that they have five offices around the country and were established in 2000.

Telecom “hands over” people who don’t pay that R7200 to NCR Legal Debt Collections, which says on its website: "Established in 2000, NCR Legal Debt Collections has become a nationally licensed leader in the debt collections industry with 5 offices across the country.”   

That sounded too coincidental to me.

So I emailed Telecom - using the addresses they used to contact the complainants - to ask if the Telecom is owned by Mr Dwarika, where the company is based, and where I can find the directory listings they are demanding payment for.

When I got no response, I phoned the number on their letterhead -  an 0861 or Maxicall number which costs callers about 60 cents a minute.

A woman called “Sam” insisted that they hadn’t received my emails, and gave me another address, but despite me resending my query several times, there has still been no response, and the phone number now goes unanswered. 

As does the debt collector’s number - I’ve left a number of messages on their answering service.

And what exactly is that R7200 being demanded of companies buying them?

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Here’s a clue. One of the companies they approached was Neil Woolridge Motors of Pietermarizburg. Bookkeeper, Linda Middlebrook got the email and later filled in the form and sent it back, and she has literally had sleepless nights about the subsequent demands for R7200.

“I was not aware that I was signing a legal document,” she said. “And I’m not authorised to sign any contracts.”

Telecom got the name of the business wrong - instead of Woolridge Motors, in their demands for payment, they have the company name as Woodridge Motors, which doesn’t exist.

A internet search for Woodridge Motors doesn’t get a single hit. So they were demanding R7200 for - nothing.

And Linda told me that the company had traced the registered owner of Telecom and NCR Legal Debt Collections to the same man at the same address: I. Dwarika, of Phoenix.

There is an online Telecon Directory. It has 2418 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.

My advice to those companies which are being harassed to pay that R7200 is not to.

The whole approach was blatantly designed to mislead and those demands for payment aren’t even accompanied by a link to the companies’ expensive listings.

As always, no matter how busy you are - never, never sign a document without reading the small print. 

The tinier the print, the more important it is that you read it. So ignore what a salesperson is telling you and focus instead on that teeny, tiny print.

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