Thursday, October 29, 2009

Who has rights? (Mmegi Consumer Watchdog column)

We’ve been getting phone calls at the office. Unfortunately none of them were offering us large quantities of money (hint), free brand new Jaguars (hint, hint) or anything romantic (hint, hint, HINT!). Instead a number of them seem to have been inspired by one of the issues we covered recently and which seems to have provoked a response. This issue began when a consumer called us asking about a vitamin company called GNLD. Her email said:
“What’s the difference between them and other vitamins and supplements as they cost anything from P300 upwards for one month’s supply which I find ridiculous! To me it’s clearly a pyramid style business or something like it, to my husband it’s an option for ‘better vitamins’ (that we don’t normally take anyway!) even though so expensive?”
My response was twofold. Firstly I don’t believe that we need to take vitamins or dietary supplements. Well, OK, perhaps you might need to if you’re pregnant, old or already unwell and your doctor has suggested it would be good for you. Maybe then you should. However, those of us who are basically healthy certainly don’t need to start popping pills. Instead we should spend our money on a healthy diet and lifestyle.

In fact I suspect that vitamins and supplements run the risk of making us worse off. Taking pills to boost their health distracts people from focussing on those things that WILL make them healthy. I can imagine people arguing that as they swallow vitamin pills their health is therefore guaranteed. They probably give some people an excuse to have an extra beer, burger or box of chocolates.

Other than the unnecessary vitamin pills there is a wider issue. GNLD is what is politely referred to as a network marketing company. It’s not, strictly speaking, a pyramid scheme because there is a product at the heart of the mechanism but it has the same structure. You recruit people beneath you to sell the vitamins and in turn they recruit more people beneath them. Add in a complex mechanism of commissions and payments and you get a pyramid-shaped selling scheme.

So what, you might ask, if people are making some money? The trouble is that they don’t. The vast majority of people DON’T make money from these schemes. The evidence from companies like Amway and World Ventures shows that about three quarters of the people who get involved either make nothing from the business or lose money. The quarter that does make some money on average only makes a tiny amount. On the World Ventures web site they confess that in 2008 70% of their recruits made no money at all from the scheme. Of those that did make money, the median earnings were a pathetic $114.60. Then, hidden away in the small print it says:
“These figures do not represent Representatives’ profits; they do not consider expenses incurred by Representatives in the promotion of their business.”
So that $114.60 is before they’ve paid their expenses, like their phone bill, internet charges, transport and materials?”

Don’t waste your money on these vitamins or pyramid-shaped get-rich-quick schemes. Spend your money on fruit and veg instead.

I’m convinced that many of the callers we had were actually involved in the GNLD scheme. Most of them refused to give their names but just asked questions about who we were. However I had a conversation with one of the callers who was prepared to talk. She claimed to be impartial but seemed to know rather too much about GNLD to be a disinterested bystander. The most interesting question she asked though was to do with us, not GNLD.

“What gives you the right to criticise them?” she asked.

At the time I couldn’t think of a smart, witty and entertaining answer. I couldn’t because I was stunned by the question.

I think the problem is that I’ve lived in democracies for too long. In fact I’ve never lived in a country that didn’t permit free speech. I think I’m so used to being able to say pretty much what I want that I’ve not given much thought to having a “right” to do so. Of course we all know there are limits to what we can say, even in a democracy like ours. The great American Supreme Court judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:
“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
Clearly there are some limits on what you and I can say. We have no right to endanger someone’s life, happiness or liberty by what we say.

Meanwhile we have an absolute right to criticise misconduct when we see it. So long as we don’t go too far and invade someone’s privacy or publish irrelevant personal information we have a right in Botswana to criticise companies when they get it wrong, we are permitted to tell them and to inform the public about their wrong-doings. In fact I’d go furthe. I think that we have an obligation to do so.

It’s not just newspaper columns that have a right to criticise and complain. We all do. Again I think we have a moral obligation to. It’s not just ourselves we’re defending, it’s our friends, families and neighbours.

So that’s where I get the “right” to criticise GNLD, their largely redundant products and their pyramid-shaped business model.

This week’s stars
  • Omphametse, Godfrey and Dineo at the Engen filling station at Square Mart. Our reader says they’re pleasant and helpful every time.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A UK legal scandal - Trafigura

Some companies, and their law firms, particularly those like Carter Ruck in the UK,  behave like utter scumbags.

Direct quote from Wikileaks:
The "Minton report" exposes a toxic waste dumping incident which hospitalized thousands. The UK media has been suppressed from referencing the report and its contents since a secret gag order was issued against it on September 11, 2009. The report was commissioned trhough Waterson & Hicks, a UK law firm, possibly to claim client-attorney privilege should it leak. Client and dump is "Trafigura", a giant multi-national oil and commodity trader. The report assesses a toxic dumping incident involving Trafigura and the Ivory Coast—possibly most culpable mass contamination incident since Bhopal. The UK media is currently unable to mention the URL or anything else that would direct people towards the report.
The UK press gag remains in effect. Incredibly, Trafigura's lawyers, Carter Ruck, are now attempting again to prevent parliamentary debate over the gag, this time by claiming sub-judice
Every so often a company (and their lawyers) deserve to be described as fascists.  Read the report!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

We get mail - the QXCI/EPFX/SCIO silliness

Intrigued by the SCIO/QXCI/EPFX machine we mentioned in Mmegi this week, I emailed one of the South African web sites advertising it.  I said:
We have been asked by a number of consumers in Botswana to investigate whether the SCIO device you advertise on your web site at is the same as the QXCI/EPFX/SCIO device that is currently banned from importation into the USA by their Food and Drug Administration.

Can you also please confirm the connection between the SCIO device and "Professor" Bill Nelson who is currently a fugitive in Hungary, on the run from fraud charges in the USA?

I plan to discuss this in this coming week's Consumer Watchdog column in Mmegi, the national newspaper in Botswana, so I would appreciate a rapid response.

Instead of a response from South Africa I got a reply all the way from Hungary.  It goes like this:
Thank you for sending your email.  Having read through your Consumer Watchdog website, I greatly respect your statement on your Right of Reply page, “It is critically important to us that we get our facts right.”   Therefore, I look forward to you printing the facts as follows.
I think you can live without it being printed.  Here on the blog will suffice.
The regulatory requirements for each country and each device are quite different.  The device that was sold in the USA called the EPFX was very similar to the SCIO, but the registration (granted in the USA in 1989) was different between the USA and the rest of the world (which is typical of many devices).   A summary of the FDA’s reasons are shown on the FDA’s Import Alert link which you reference below in which the FDA state what the device was and was not given marketing clearance.  Therefore, the FDA have put the device on the Import List and it is no longer manufactured.  The manufacturer of the EPFX closed in February 2009.
"Very similar" to the EPFX?  They're the same thing as far I can tell.
The SCIO has a different registration in Europe and the rest of the world as a Universal Electrophysiological System which covers many indications for use approved in Europe.  The website you mention below is advertising the SCIO under the indications for use as approved in the registration. 
William Nelson is the creator of the device.  The situation with his legal status in the USA should not bear a reflection on the device and its safe and effective use.  
Logically, yes, that's true.  It IS possible for a fraud on the run to have invented a device that works. However as he is on the run precisely because this device does NOT work and the claims made about it were (and remain) fraudulent, I think it IS relevant, don't you?
However, William Nelson has expressed an interest to chat with you on the phone if you wish.  To organize this, please write to [email address removed]
I've given this a lot of thought but I don't think I can do it.  Talk to him without laughing I mean.
As the Regulatory Manager, I’m responsible for ensuring the safe and effective use of the SCIO in all countries and areas where it is registered and used.  Every year in the Spring we complete an audit to ensure the safe and effective use of the SCIO.  The current registration in Europe expires in April 2011 as European registrations are granted for 5 years at a time.  I am more than happy to answer any more of your questions regarding the SCIO.  However, please keep in mind that I will be at a conference from Wednesday – Sunday October 7-11 and will not get the chance to respond until after the conference..
There you go.  Right of Reply respected.

I still can't see any reason not to describe the SCIO/QXCI/EPFX as a piece of nonsensical, charlatan quackery.  Avoid it.

Fighting nonsense (Mmegi Consumer Watchdog column)

It’s been a hard couple of weeks. I’m trying hard to think of a recent example of someone NOT being hugely gullible and naïve. I had a boss years ago who loved to remark that “common sense wasn’t”. Wasn’t common, he meant. If you look back over the history of our largely pathetic species you’ll see that apart from the occasional moments of generosity, kindness and heroism it is largely characterised by nastiness, naiveté and stupidity.

You see this both at the large-scale, historical level but also at the micro level. In other words in my email Inbox.

As you may have seen over the last few weeks we’ve mentioned a variety of very suspicious establishments that offer so-called qualifications for nothing other than cash. These call themselves universities but are no more than post boxes, email addresses and web sites. Correction, they’re no more than bank accounts. All you have to do is send them your cash, pretend that you’ve learned something and you get a degree of varying importance back by post. The last one wanted no more than $850 for a PhD, the exam for which was multiple choice! I can just imagine the questions. Q1. Are you going to tell your prospective employers that you bought this crappy degree online? Answer 1: Yes, I’m an honest fraud. Answer 2: No, I’m a fraud, a cheat and a liar.

Following these articles we got an email. No, I don’t mean the one from the “University” in question (The “University” of SouthCentral Los Angeles) that threatened to engage their lawyers. This email came from a reader who had a question. He said:

“I was about to apply for one of those degrees at USCLA. What you wrote made me think twice. However, my question is, are there any universities that would offer you a degree in one year? Genuinely speaking.”

Well, I suppose it’s good that I helped him think twice about getting a fake degree but is he really serious? Does he really think there are REAL universities that award degrees in a year? In case you’re in doubt, there aren’t. You can’t get a genuine degree that quickly, you really can’t. You certainly can’t over the internet. You most certainly can’t just by handing over a chunk of cash.

Then there was the other question we had. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence but just after we’d done a radio show on pseudoscience we were contacted by someone about one of the “health” devices that had been mentioned on the show.

This was the QXCI machine, otherwise known as EPFX or more recently the “SCIO”. This is a box of electronics about which some astonishing claims are made. The South African web site that is used to market this device claims that it:
“is an incredibly acurate (sic) biofeedback stress reduction system, combining the best of biofeedback, stress reduction, Rife machines, homeopathic medicine, bioresonance, electro-acupuncture, computer technology and quantum physics”

The web site explains how this device works. See if you can understand any of this tripe. Apparently it’s “multi-layer faclity enables dysfunction unravelling”. It is also “Equivalent to radonic operation”. Best of all it explains that “Most computers are binary: 1 or 0. Quantum software is trinary - basis for artificial intelligence”.

Incidentally, in case you are wondering what QXCI means, let me tell you. It stands for “Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface”. Here’s your free consumer tip for the week. Anyone who uses the word “quantum” when they are trying to sell you something is a fraud or a fool. Or both.

I could go on giving you examples of this hogwash but I think you’ve probably heard enough. This nonsense was written by someone who knows nothing about anything. They’re just using a jumble of meaningless words they’ve seen somewhere that sound good. I think you can get a feel for how respectable these people are elsewhere on the site. They offer a variety of workshops on alternative health including some based on the work of Hulda Clarke. “Dr” Clarke was famous for her bizarre, dangerous and frankly stupid theories about disease. She maintained that every single disease was caused by a combination of parasites and pollutants. She claimed that her remedies could cure cancer, diabetes and AIDS. Clarke (who died earlier this year) was a quack and a charlatan with a range of fake degrees. Anyone who offers services based on her theories is another fool or fraud.

To expand my understanding a little further I phoned the people in South Africa to ask about their SCIO device. They did indeed claim that it could cure “any disease”. They also told me that anyone can use it because when you buy the device you get a training package built in. So how much does this silly machine cost? R200,000.

So in answer to the question we received, no, we don’t think you should waste your money on this silly machine. Here’s one final reason why you shouldn’t. The US Food and Drug Administration have imposed a ban on importing the device into the USA. In an interview with the Seattle Times a spokesman for the FDA said:
“This is pure, blatant fraud. The claims are baloney. These people prey in many cases on consumers who are desperate in seeking cures for very serious diseases.”

Amusingly the inventor of the machine, the self-proclaimed “Professor” Bill Nelson (who also performs as a tranvestite singer under the name Desiré Dubounet) is now on the run in Hungary, a fugitive from US justice, on the run from fraud charges.

Do you really want to use a device that is based on fraud and baloney and was invented by a man who calls himself Desiré?

This week’s stars
  • Colin in the butchery at Spar at Kgale Shopping Centre for being charming, helpful and friendly.
  • The team at Incredible Connection for responding to a problem with professionalism and style and ending up with another very happy customer.