Students feeling conned by gym

While students at Fort Hare University want fees to fall, some are also fighting to have their Virgin Active contracts fall.

Nikiwe Nyathi, Simphiwe Khuse and Bukelwa Loliwe have accused a Virgin Active agent of using unfair tactics to get them to sign a two-year contract. The contracts were signed in August last year.

They fear they will have a bad credit record and rating by the time they complete their studies because Virgin Active does not want to cancel their contracts.

Nyathi, 19, a second-year student, said a Virgin Active agent at the East London branch telephonically pestered her and other students to join the gym in June last year.

She said they were told they had a student offer of R150, which she considered reasonable after she was given a gym voucher she used for three days.

According to the sales representative, it was a month-to-month contract that could be terminated by not going to gym, said Nyathi.

"With this excitement we joined the gym. I did not inform my parents as I did not know this would be regarded as a credit facility, hence when I couldn't afford it I stopped going to the gym."

She said Virgin Active did not verify with her mother if she could afford the credit facility as she was 18 when she signed the contract.

Nyathi said the agent also did not tell her there was a cooling off period allowing her to cancel the contract within five days of signing it.

She said she was shocked when a month later she was told the R150 was only a registration fee and that the monthly fee was actually R299.

"I'm a full-time student who has never worked. Therefore, I'm in no position to make any payment due to affordability," said Nyathi.

She said she went to gym for only three months and stopped because she couldn't afford it. Because she gave them her bank details, they continued to debit her account even when it had no funds in it, she said.

They later passed her on to their attorneys, Munnik Basson Dagama (MBD) Inc.

They recently sent her a message which read: "Get your body beach-ready! Settle your Virgin Active account of R2941.60 and rejoin the gym."

Although her mother tried to intervene, Virgin Active would not let her off the hook, she said. 

"Please help and also raise awareness of all other students who are falling in the same trap," Nyathi said.

Khuse, 20, experienced the same problem.

"They told us they had the students special offer of R150, which we all thought was reasonable and joined. They did not tell us we will be required to pay a month in advance or that the fees increase to R299, and many students fell prey to this. It's really getting out of hand."

Loliwe, 21, said Virgin Active was targeting first-year students because they were 'gullible', and in most cases, do not know the consequences of their actions. She said they use the discount as a tactic to lure students into signing up.

Les Aupiais, the head of strategic communications at Virgin Health Clubs SA, said they acted in compliance with the Consumer Protection Act. Aupiais said their contracts were written in clear, concise language with certain clauses highlighted to draw attention to them.

"The five-day cool off period was in place and at any time the members had the right to cancel the agreement with Virgin Active without prejudice, which would include being refunded for all payments already made at that point in time," said Aupiais.

She said the students signed the contracts with the assistance of different consultants at different times of the year, and contracts were handed to them and not e-mailed.

This ensured that the paperwork was physically available for further scrutiny, said Aupiais .

She said the requirement to pay by a debit order for 24 months was clear on their agreement, as were other terms and conditions of the agreements.

"All these women were over 18 at the time and as such, adults with full legal capacity to sign their own contracts," she said. Aupiais said when contacted by their in-house team to collect on arrears balances, they never disputed the debit orders.

"We believe that Virgin Active made every reasonable effort to assist them before further action was seen as necessary."

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