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The letter that was sent out to VDM account holders warning them that action will be taken should they not settle their bills. Apart from the rude tone of the letter, many consumers who were targeted were not in arrears.

Debt-collection company apologises for rude letter

Date: 29 March 2024 By: Anton van Zyl

The debt-collection company that sent out threatening letters to consumers in Vhembe has apologised for the way the matter was handled and has undertaken to institute disciplinary action against the staff member responsible for sending it out. What also transpired is that the insulting letter was probably written using an artificial intelligence (AI) programme.

Consumers in the Vhembe District were furious upon receiving messages from a debt-collection agency acting on behalf of the Vhembe District Municipality (VDM) earlier this month. The letters were seemingly sent to a large number of account holders, many of whom do not have any accounts in arrears.

The tone of the letter, however, was what upset many taxpayers. “Let me be perfectly clear: your overdue account demands immediate attention ... Please understand that our patience has worn thin. We will not hesitate to pursue every available avenue to recover the funds owed to us if you continue to neglect your financial responsibilities,” the letter reads.

Many consumers contacted the VDM to find out what they were supposed to owe the municipality, only to be reassured that they were not in arrears. The VDM staff apologised to consumers for the messages that were sent out.

The letters were sent out by a Gauteng-based debt collection company, Risima Shared Services. The spokesperson for VDM, Mr Matodzi Ralushai, confirmed that the municipality had subcontracted Risima to collect outstanding debts. He said that Risima did not get paid a fixed fee to do the collections but did so on a commission basis. He did not disclose what percentage of the debt the company will be paid.

The wording of the letter of demand resembled something that was not written by a human but rather appeared to be generated by an AI programme such as Chat GPT or Google Gemini. Limpopo Mirror ran the letter through a couple of programmes that can detect AI-generated text. A popular detection site, Sapling, gave it a score of “100% fake”. Another site, GPT Zero, reckoned that a 90% possibility existed that the letter was created using AI.

The danger of using a programme such as ChatGPT to generate a letter is that the AI-bot cannot distinguish between strong wording and defamatory statements. An AI-bot will assume that the receiver of the letter is a regular offender with no intention of settling the debt. It will not take into consideration that the VDM’s accounts are, at best of times, in shambles and that the receiver may be a very conscientious taxpayer.

To try and find out why this happened, questions were sent to a director of Risima Shared Services, Mr Rofhiwa Mudau. He responded very quickly and took full responsibility for what had happened. “Risima Shared Services apologises to all VDM ratepayers for the tone and the unprofessional conduct, and as such we have taken a decision to issue disciplinary action against the employee responsible for this matter,” he said.

Mudau explained that the company makes use of predetermined communication strategies, including SMSs, emails as well as call scripts, when engaging with customers. “In this case, a team leader, appointed by Risima, took it on her own accord to write and send a bulk email to customers, without obtaining the necessary approval from her line management prior to the message being sent out. Had she followed the correct processes prior to sending out the communication, we would not approve the correspondence,” he said.

On Risima’s website, it states that some of the company’s core values are courtesy, dignity, and respect. Mudau was asked whether the letter sent to consumers reflected these values. “We understand that the values of Ubuntu mean that we are responsible to not just carry out our collections mandate, but to also educate and support the public at large at all engagements. That being said, the email from our staff member is in stark contrast to our values,” he answered.

Mudau was also asked whether Risima does the necessary verification to ensure that the information it acts on is correct. He evaded the question and only explained how they do debt collection. “Risima’s mandate in terms of the work being carried out for Vhembe Municipality includes debt collections and in cases where the debtor refuses to pay, Risima engages the municipality to proceed with the necessary credit control policies as per the mandate of the municipality,” he said.

But, as many local consumers pointed out the past week, for Mudau’s company to get accurate data from the VDM will be nearly impossible. In various previous reports by the auditor-general, the discrepancies between what was billed by the municipality and what was reasonably owed by debtors were pointed out.

Two years ago, the VDM made provision for impairment totalling R1,195 billion. The municipality almost appears to expect its debtors not to pay inaccurate bills. In the latest AG report (2023), the AG states: “An effective system of internal control for debtors and revenue was not in place, as required by section 64(2) (f) of the MFMA.”

The 2023/24 budget of the VDM makes provision for R620-million in debt impairment. The adjusted 2022/23 budget reflects R915,26-million to be written off in water bills.

 

 
 
 

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Anton van Zyl

Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror since 1990. He graduated from the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.

 
 

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