Buying products online can be a gamble if you don’t know the company you are dealing with

2014-04-29 00:00

BUYING products online can be a bit of a gamble if you don’t quite know the product and the company you are dealing with, or where they are based, before happily giving away your credit card details.

Anushia Senjavaraj and her mother were browsing Facebook when they came across an advert for the “magic” weight loss supplement Garcinia Cambogia, that claimed to be “the secret to staying fit and sexy” because it can “stop new fat from being made”. The advertiser Simply Cambogia Max claimed that hydroxycitric acid (HCA) extracted from the rind of the Asian Garcinai Cambogia fruit is “mother nature’s answer to weight loss”.

Senjavaraj bought two of the products priced at R1 019 and R637 and paid by credit card in November.

“It was [advertised as] endorsed by Dr Oz, which was why we went for it,” Senjavaraj said.

But a few months later when the product had not arrived, Senjavaraj became concerned and searched for the company on Facebook. However, there was just one problem — on Facebook alone there were more than 60 pages promoting Garcinia Cambogia, but Simply Cambogia Max did not feature. Dozens of online sites with similar names came up in the search along with thousands of others for the product.

Senjavaraj said she sent several messages to one of the companies, which she believed she had identified as the advertiser, as it had also displayed an endorsement by Dr Oz.

“I have gone to the site numerous times and have left messages but still have received no help,” Senjavaraj said. It turned out that she had messaged the wrong company.

When I took on Senjavaraj’s case, I had a similar problem trying to find the right company after sending out questions to a few advertised on Facebook, as well as contacting the United States call centre of the company Senjavaraj had been trying to reach.

However, I managed to cut through the confusion of similar names when something made me compare the reference number on the bank statement to the various call centre numbers on the sites. The reference number turned out to be a number for Nutrasupport.com call centres that staff advised were based in Nevada and Las Vegas.

As call centres go, agent Rich Williams refused to escalate my query after advising that not only was the customer not on the database, but that the call centre number I had dialled was not for Nutrasupport.com. “Interesting”, I replied, since I had got through to the company by dialling it.

“Since you are a journalist,” he said, possibly turning to the correct script, “the product we have here is for Garcinia Cambogia weight loss supplement. The customer signed up on our website so what happened here is our product from the U.S. will not be allowed into South Africa due to the presence of the chemical HCA. It is not approved to the customs or health, so what we do here, we process a refund,” Williams said.

However, he advised that this would not be possible as he had no record of the transaction. He asked if he could help me with anything else before I was suddenly cut off.

When I called back I spoke to supervisor Sarah Parker, who suddenly confirmed the customer’s order, but also gave the unsatisfactory response that it was “being held by customs”. Parker promised to investigate and contact Senjavaraj directly within a few days.

South African homeopath Dr Yogan Pillay, who sells a similar product via his website, said he received several calls every day from people who have ordered products from abroad, but had never received them.

“Some people have been debited twice,” Pillay said.

So, the moral of the story is to only do business with companies that you know and that can be physically traced via a landline and street address.

It’s important to note that the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa recently ruled against a local company, Rapid Diet Solutions CC, for making unsubstantiated claims about weight loss related to a similar Garcinia Cambogia supplement after the company failed to provide scientific evidence. There have also been reports that the health risks have not been adequately researched.

Consumer activist and medical doctor Dr Harris Steinman said: “There is no robust proof that this ingredient works. One researcher, the most vocal, claims his study in 2002 supports the ingredient, other more recent studies do not.

“The dose is important, so in many studies that show it does not work, fairly large dosages were used, [but] many companies sell it at much lower dosages.”

Steinman said it was possible that the product could be held by customs because it was a complementary medicine requiring permission from the Medicines Control Council to enter the country.

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