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Why you should always read the small print

Once again, this week’s show is a cautionary tale about reading documents properly before you sign.

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It relates to phone directory listings. First, some background. A company called Trudon is the brand owner and publisher of the country’s most prominent directories - the white pages and the Yellow Pages. 

Companies, like private individuals, can be listed free in the white pages, but if they want to be in eye-catching bold capitals, they must pay. And of course, the Yellow Pages entries are all adverts, so they are paid for, too.Trudon has warned for years about companies approaching its advertisers calling themselves Yellow Pages or directory consultants when they are not.

I’ve had a few complaints about a Durban-based company called Directories Services 2, calling businesses and allegedly misleading them into believing that they are affiliated to the white and yellow pages, asking them to submit their updated information and then sending them a bill for  R7000 or R8000.

Mandy's story

One of them was Mandy McLeod, admin secretary with a small Westville company manufacturing natural probiotics. She vividly remembers the call she got from Directories Services in June.

“On June 4 the call came through from an Adalene who claimed she was from the ‘Directory Services’ and wanted to know if we were interested in renewing our listing in the directory. We thought it was Telkom directory services…”

It was a fairly short call, Mandy says, and she was later sent a document to fill in with the company’s details. She complied, having briefly read the document, signed it and sent it back. I asked her what she thought the cost would be. She said that wasn’t discussed, and she'd assumed that because she’d merely been asked to update the company’s details, there was no cost.

“We didn't think that there was a fee at all, which is why we went ahead and just filled the form in and sent it back.  More than a month later, on July 22, I was horrified when I opened an email from them and found an invoice for the amount of R8180.”

The amount was payable immediately, and would attract interest of 5% a month.

Here’s the thing - the cost of the service was disclosed on that form which Mandy filled in and sent back. But in her defence, I didn’t see it either, at first. In fact I read the document several times before I saw it, because that paragraph is designed to blend into the letterhead. 

Directly under the name of the company is this: “AMOUNT: R299 x twenty four months only, excluding VAT. Payment in full  on receipt of 30 day invoice. Total value of contract: seven thousand one hundred and seventy six Rand, only, excluding VAT, to be paid within 30 days of the invoice.”

Expressing monetary amounts in words rather than in numbers reduces the chance of a person’s eye being caught by the amount.

Mandy’s company was charged for artwork. When she asked to see the artwork, the listing itself or a copy or link to the directory she was being asked to pay more than R8000 to appear in, she was told that only customers get to see the directory.

“You can only become a customer after you’ve paid,” she said. "So it means that only customers see each other’s ads."

Mandy says she was told the contract couldn’t be cancelled. That’s when she did some research and found several other similar complaints on Hellopeter.

I contacted Directories Services, asking what directory they publish, where could I access it, and what its reach was. I also asked what their agents say when calling companies about listings.

The directory company responds

Responding, director Ashwin Dwarika said the company’s marketing consultants told those they phoned that "this call maybe recorded for quality purposes”, and that because calls are recorded, “they cannot make  a mistake and mention being affiliated to Telkom, Trudon or TDS.”
"They ask the businesses if they’d like to advertise with Directories Services 2", he said, “and market the product with prices included.”

I asked him to forward the recording of that call, given that Mandy recalls the conversation differently, but I haven’t received it.
I am reliably informed that the calls in question are not recorded.

Dwarika said the contract which Mandy signed discloses the full cost, and the fact that the company is not affiliated to Telkom or Trudon. 

That is true. Mandy - and others - didn’t read the contract fully, although it must be said that the placement and format of the cost implication makes it easy to miss, and the would-be customer is not required to sign that key section, which is customary with contracts.

Dwarika said a written cancellation would be accepted within seven days of the signed contract. Well, Mandy only got the R8000 invoice about a month after signing that contract, so that didn’t help her.

As for the where is this directory available, Dwarika said that R8000 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 in November, and would be available at information centres and business fairs, he said, a very material fact which was not mentioned to Mandy on the phone or in the following emails she was sent. 

As for the online directory, Dwarika said: “Kindly note, the website is currently under construction due to it being close to time of printing.”

He did send me two links to the listings of Mandy’s company and that of another complainant. I appear to be the only one outside of the company who has seen them so far.

Dwarika ended by saying the business had “thousands of happy, paid-in-full clients on our clientele base.”

Bottom line - never, ever sign a document without first reading every word on it. Assume nothing. 

And to businesses big and small - if you get a call about a directory listing, tread extremely carefully and ask very probing, specific questions about the offer. And inform everyone in the company not to take it upon themselves to agree to “update” any directory entry.

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