scammers beware

Thabo Leshilo.
© Sowetan
Thabo Leshilo. © Sowetan

ABOUT seven years ago, while editing Pretoria News , a vigilant advertising executive stormed into my office seeking my help in fobbing off a persistent advertiser.

ABOUT seven years ago, while editing Pretoria News , a vigilant advertising executive stormed into my office seeking my help in fobbing off a persistent advertiser.

The man wanted to force her to accept an advertisement for, wait for it, halaal pork!

The man gave a tedious, convoluted explanation about what qualified his swine meat as halaal; begged and cajoled us to run it. We stood our ground and told him where to shove his offensive oxymorons.

You can imagine our delight and relief the next day, when a noisy march by Muslims passed our office en route to the Union Buildings to protest an unrelated matter.

My sojourn into the valley of unsavoury advertisements follows an impassioned complaint from a reader, Jon Abbott. He was jolted into action by the rather dubious adverts that appear in the Sunday Times.

The adverts that got Abbott's goat appeared on page 4 of the main paper and Business Times of July 12. The adverts promised unrealistically huge profits for a tiny investment. He finds it "morally reprehensible" for Sunday Times to carry such adverts while warning readers of their potential harm.

"This implies that Sunday Times has reservations about some of the adverts that appear but is quite happy to take them anyway.

"The claims made in some of these adverts are just too good to be true, and as we are told time and again in the media, 'if it is too good to be true, it isn't'," says Abbot.

He has hit the nail on the head. Newspapers cannot escape culpability for such blatant exploitation of readers by unscrupulous advertisers who ride on their credibility. People believe what they read in newspapers - be it news or adverts.

That is just as well. Editors want them to believe what they publish. Newsmen and women take pride in hearing people say of their publications: "it must be true, it was in the newspaper".

Likewise, we must cringe each time we hear them say: "don't believe everything you read in the papers".

Because Avusa editors are responsible even for the adverts that appear in their newspapers, they can ill afford to have the credibility of their publications compromised by being seen to be in cahoots with charlatans.

The response to Abbott's gripe by Avusa Media's advertising bosses this week was swift and pleasantly surprising. This is especially so given the tough economic times.

Shaun Phillips, the chief sales officer: direct sales and classifieds for Sunday Times, The Times, Sowetan, Sunday World and SoccerLife, ordered all sales staff to immediately get approval for "any adverts that appear to represent fraudulent, unethical or unscrupulous business practices".

The directive specifically referred to adverts promising preposterously large returns for a small investment, such as those Abbot is so miffed about.

This includes but is not limited to, 'send-an-SMS-to-clear-your-debt' adverts or those promising to clear debtors' names from blacklisting by credit bureaus.

Phillips said, as a start, Avusa Media would verify all advertisers' contact details and have these appear on the adverts. This includes the advertisers' physical address, land-line numbers and names of people to contact. This way it will at least be possible to identify and act against fraudsters.

Henceforth, all such advertisers will be required to fill out a valid credit application and be approved. "Cash adverts will not be accepted," says Phillips.

In addition, any adverts which are in doubt need to be cleared by Phillips or Enver Groenewald, Avusa's head of advertising.

This is an improvement on the current situation where anybody with a pre-paid cellphone but no physical address can place an advert in the papers for a fly-by-night business, scam unsuspecting people and disappear without trace.