Government letterheads are not designed to be pretty. They do not have to be. When we get a letter from our Govt we are tempted to intense anxiety before retiring to change our briefs. Government is not known for frivolous missives.
This means that when you receive one from the Dept of Justice telling you boldly about the imminent "Removal of your company details" you take instant action.
That logo looks the same as the last Govt letter you received, and that was not good news either. The style is best described as unjovial.
You also know that no South African in his right mind will try to forge a Govt letterhead. The thought of a few years in Pollsmoor tends to put one off.
This does not stop a German company from sending out letters that look just like Dept of Justice communiques. Thousands of them. The threat of a few years in the hotels that pass for German prisons must sound like a holiday to hard-working German scamps.
Bottom line: do not respond to a letter from anyone, even the Department of Justice, about the "Removal of your company details". It is a scam, but not by the SA Government.
Actually, the only crowd in SA that can remove your details from anything is the team at CIPC. They do not want you get into a flap while they deregister your firm so they do not warn you. I am sure that their intentions are sincere.
What thousands of South Africans are facing is a German scam which looks very much like a government directive. It has been going on since 2009 in about 20 countries. (I list below the ones I have found.) Yet there seems to have been almost no action taken against the firm.
Each person who is burned by the people hiding behind TVV Tele Verzeichnis Verlag GmbH assumes that they alone are stupid to have been had. Not so. These guys write letters that look just like the real thing you might get from the UK Department of Trade, or the Norwegian Government or the SA Department of Justice. The letters are marketing genius, albeit on the wrong side of what the rest of us call ethical. But maybe not.
You might think that each target country might instruct their local German consulates to make known to their hosts their slight concern. It seems not.
It turns out that this letter is viewd as a normal request to do business even if it is slightly racy, what with a SA govt logo and all.
This Tvv Tele Verzeichnis Verlag GmbH scam.
The letter you receive actually refers to their private www.web-register-za.com website, not any official SA govt register. This site is hosted by Hetzner in Germany and has as much to do with South Africa as the Platypus.
You receive a letter where the second paragraph clearly states that any changes are free. That's what You will not be charged for this! often means. That exclamation point makes the point even more emphatic.
(Read that again very, very carefully and you will notice that they refer to you logging into their site to do this yourself. Anything else costs a little more.)
The second page offers you a simpler way to make any changes. Of course you do so and then fax the document. You could also post it using the "prepaid" envelope. Since the SA post office is as concerned about delivering mail as the SA government is about protecting you from fraudsters using their logo, faxing seems more prudent.
(As I researched the layout of that page I could not help but admire how it has been tweaked over the years to be almost irresistible.)
About two weeks later you will get an invoice from TVV Tele Verzeichnis Verlag GmbH for R9372 along with a sheet asking for your credit card details.
So you read the original letter again to try and understand what has happened. (If you have not yet filed the original in your bin.)
It turns out, as you dig deeper, that you have signed a contract with TVV Tele Verzeichnis Verlag GmbH to advertise your business on their German website for R9372/year for three years. It renews yearly after that until you cancel by registered letter.
You can also cancel by registered letter to Germany within the first two weeks. That could be why the invoice takes a few days more than that to arrive.
As these began to cross my desk last week I spoke to two lawyers about how legal such a contract might be. Both agreed that this was a valid contract. You might have some defence based on the government logo, and the misleading wording, but their opinion was that you should have read it carefully first. Of course they are right.
But that letter is pure marketing genius. If trademarks inspire trust (and a govt logo is just such a thing) then you cannot do much better than a government logo when selling something. Especially when that letter offers it offers you a free DIY fix. Irresistible.
1300 South Africans have already thought so. And 3400 Brits, and 897 Canadians, and …
Add all of these up and you see a whole lot of money being syphoned. 10,000 signers at R9372 each is almost R100 million, and that is just for the first year. And this is legal?
Oh yes. Because they do exactly what the document says they will. They do change your details. And they do give you a featured page. But on a German site that no possible prospect will ever look at with a search process that harkens back to the Middle Ages.
I am tempted to suggest this as a superb business opportunity but I fear I might wipe out whatever karmic balance I have accrued.
What I find most curious is how subtly this is done. I phoned a few of the firms that I could see had involuntarily "contracted" this German firm. Each person I spoke to was waging battle against this firm alone, as if they were the only person who might have done this.
Once you have signed the enthusiasm with which the German firm pursues your payment is matched only by SARS.
www.web-register-za.com and siblings…
We like to think that we Saffers are special, but the team at TVV Tele Verzeichnis Verlag GmbH has been crafting this for a long time in lots of countries. Here are the ones I dug out as I researched this article:
- www.web-register-za.com (SA)
- www.portal-nz.org (New Zealand)
- www.ceta-directories.org (Canada)
- www.portail-des-entreprises-de-belgique.be (Belgium)
- www.internet-regiszter-magyarorszag.com (Hungary)
- www.ondernemingsportaal-nl.com (Netherlands)
- www.danmarks-virksomhedsportal.dk (Denmark)
- www.directorio-internet-espana.com (Spain)
- www.portail-entreprises-fr.com (France)
- www.portail-des-entreprises-lu.com (Luxembourg)
- www.foretagsportalen-sverige.com (Sweden)
- www.yritysportaali-suomi.com (Finland)
- www.ondernemings-portaal-belgie.be (Belgium)
So, what to do?
It turns out that a few folk do actually pay, and this might make it profitable enough for the German firm to desist from chasing. As far as I can see they do not seem to have taken true legal action against anyone who has ignored them. Of course, maybe our very own CIPC team will deregister your firm before it gets to court.
File the paperwork, just in case.
And then sit it out. If you're lucky the Post Office will revert to form and stop delivering the letters. Otherwise, email me here and tell me your story.
Somebody told me the other day, "If you want to mess with South Africans you need to be wearing your big boy pants."