Thursday, November 12, 2009

Scams 'r' us

The News, Dec 14, 2008


Scams 'r' us

By Omar R. Quraishi

I remember the time when I was in university in America and a friend of mine who just happened to be Pakistani told me how he and his friend made a couple of hundred dollars from the airline that they flew from Pakistan on. The scam, because that's what it was, was that they complained to the airline, upon reaching JKF in New York that their luggage had been lost. They managed to do this because once their luggage, a suitcase, came through baggage claim and one of their friends who had come to the airport to receive them quietly took it away.

This was in the early 1990s and there was no real strict checking of luggage at most American airports, certainly not in the way that happens now where disembarking passengers are asked to show receipts and tags for luggage that they take with them once they leave the terminal. The unsuspecting airline, according to its policy of providing compensation to passengers for lost luggage, paid $200 dollars to my friend who was more than happy.

Then there was this other time, where a group of friends from Pakistan, in true desi style, used and abused the generous provisions of a local electronics store for customers. Many stores in America have what is called a one-month money back guarantee especially for household electronic items. This means that buy a television set or a DVD player,and use it up to month, during which time it may be returned to the vendor for a full refund. It will make eminent sense to readers why such a scheme would never be advertised in Pakistan because it would be abused to the fullest which is what my group of friends living and studying in Boston at that time did. Four of them were living together and one would 'buy' a TV, one a VCR, another a stereo system and another something else. Just before the month would run out, they would go to the store and return the item that they had 'bought' for a full cash refund. They would then start all over again, though going to a different store, or even from the same one, but 'buying' a different item each time.

Coming to the present, there are scams all around us and in most of them we are at the extreme receiving end, because we happen to be customers who do nothing about this exploitation. For instance, take some thing that I have to experience almost every other day as someone who used a car fitted with a CNG cylinder.

Now anyone who has a car which runs on CNG will know that unlike filling petrol, where the station attendant can programme the exact amount to be filled in rupees or in litres, CNG pumps for some reason do not have this technology. The result is that even if the bill comes to Rs254.30, the amount is rounded off to the next rupee. And if you point this out to the CNG pump staff, they make you feel as if you are some kind of scrooge who is haggling over less than a rupee. However, the matter is of principles and not a rupee or something because one's money should be hard earned and it bothers one when one is forced to pay more than what a service costs. Had their been some kind of resistance from CNG vehicle owners I remember reading a good blog post on it but surely we need something more CNG station owners would be at least be made aware of public anger on this and could be asked to adopt a policy of rounding it off to the highest rupee only if the residual amount is less than 50 paisas (for example if the bill is Rs234.34 the customer should be made to pay Rs234 but if it is Rs234.52 s/he should pay Rs235).

And lest people think this is a piddling sum, come to think of the number of times a vehicle fills CNG in the country each day and even if the average residual is say 30 paisa (which means customers are paying on average 30 paisa per transaction) that can add to up quite a hefty amount in the pockets of CNG station owners. If they cannot agree to this, they should install the same kind of electronics that petrol stations have which enable the fuel supply to stop when the programme amount in rupees is reached.

Besides this, another scam that one faces every day and really does nothing about is the charged parking scam in Karachi, especially in the business district and affluent commercial areas such as Clifton. In the latter, those who have residential flats in the area were approached by parking 'contractors' (thugs or extortionists is more like it) and asked to pay Rs1500 per month for parking charges (this could translate into a windfall of several million rupees a month). Quite understandably many of the residents are more than a bit peeved by this outrageous demand. Of course, many should have thought of this when they bought flats in buildings where the builders never provided the promised parking space. But that is unfortunately the norm in Karachi -- perhaps even in other cities of Pakistan -- and even if there is underground parking or a floor reserved for parking in a building, a commercial or a semi-commercial area, it is used by the shop proprietors as a makeshift godown and storage area -- so hell to the resident who wants to have space to park his or her car.

Even in Karachi's commercial areas, the charged parking scams thrive, courtesy lax municipal oversight or perhaps outright collusion by the authorities which grant these contracts. For instance, right by my office on the city's main business artery are situated two large parking lots -- one of them shares a wall with the Supreme Court's Karachi registry. However, what has happened in recent days is that because of high demand for space, the contractor and his staff would use the road --M R Kayani Road -- to park vehicles. The result is that now the road is used for charged parking as a default where as the parking charges are to be levied only if one parks a car inside the lots. Since hundreds of cars are being parked on M R Kayani road every day -- and at the rate of Rs20 a car -- this turns out to several thousand rupees in profit everyday -- at no cost to the contractor. How can the Karachi city authority, the Karachi and Clifton Cantonment boards allow this to happen -- unless, as many would suspect, they are in on it?

The writer is Editorial Pages Editor of The News.


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