In Sim Lim Square phone shops, the sting's in the CONtract
Sim Lim Square is reputed to be the place for electronics and IT.
But it is nothing more than a killing ground, especially for tourists, says a former mobile phone shop owner.
Sick of seeing his neighbours rip off customers, often making them cry, he moved out after a year.
And after more reports of errant mobile phone shops surfaced in the past week, he decided to reveal the secrets behind their unscrupulous sales tactics.
The man, who wanted to be known as Marcus, told The New Paper: "The Vietnamese man who cried after losing $550 to a shop - that's just one of the many people I've seen in tears as they leave Sim Lim Square.
"The shop owners have no heart, no remorse. It's time that people's perception of that place changed."
Mobile phone shop assistants can earn anything from $1,000 to more than $10,000 a month in commission, depending on how cunning and adept they are at making customers part with their money, he said.
This is how they do it.
1 GATHERING INTEL
Shop assistants will strike up conversations with customers when they enter the shop, Marcus said.
They may appear to be just friendly salesmen, but it is actually to assess the customers. Their prime targets are usually tourists or clueless locals.
"They will ask where the customer is from and when he is leaving the country. If the customer says he is leaving that very night, then they will go all out for the 'kill'," he said.
He said the shop assistants would also take note whether the customer is wearing expensive clothes or accessories such as watches.
They would also find out how much the customer knows about the product, prices and the level of taxes in Singapore, and hence gauge whether he or she will fall for their tricks, Marcus added.
And locals are not spared.
"I've seen some aunties losing money to these shops. Basically, they will pick on whoever they can," he said.
2 SETTING UP A SMOKESCREEN
To lure customers to make purchases, they will offer a promotional price, Marcus said.
"They will quote a low price for a mobile phone, one that is too good to be true. They will also tell the customer that the promotion ends the moment he leaves the shop."
But the promotional price is usually not the final price, something that customers are not made aware of, he said.
Once the customer agrees to buy the phone, the shop assistants will ask for payment, he said.
After that, they get the customer to sign a contract. This is where they usually snare unsuspecting customers.
Customers who skim through the contract and don't read the "terms of conditions" properly will fall into their trap.
Some tourists are also not fluent in English and in some cases, customers are told that the form they are signing is for the shop's records.
Once the contract is signed, the customer is told that the price he paid is just a deposit and the sale is conditional on him taking up the shop's in-house warranty.
This warranty could run from a few hundred dollars to more than $2,000 for a two-year warranty.
Said Marcus: "The customer is in a bind as he has signed the contract. The shop assistants will not give him the phone until he pays the full amount.
"Even if he calls the police, they can't do much because his signature is on the contract."
If the customer demands a refund, he will get back only a percentage of what he paid, as stated on the contract, he added.
Some shop assistants may also try to charge extra for activation or unlocking costs, he said.
3 COMMUNICATING IN CODE
There may be price tags pasted on the mobile phone boxes, but customers will not be able to figure out the prices, Marcus said.
Instead of a numerical value, what they see are letters. For example, a phone that costs $980 may have a price tag that reads "ATE".
"This allows the shop assistants to know the base value of the phone and how much they can adjust the prices," he said.
Shop assistants also communicate with each other in code words.
"If a shop assistant tells another that he just had ayam (Malay for chicken) for $2,000, it means that he just made that amount from a customer," he said.
4 USING COVER AND CONCEALMENT
Paying by Nets could also be costly, he said.
"When the shop assistants key in the price, they may add an extra digit at the end. An $18 purchase could become $180. Or they could key in $80 and claim later that the customer had misheard them.
"When they pass you the Nets machine to key in your PIN, they may cover the screen so you don't see it until it's too late," he said.
Shop assistants have also been reported to cover certain parts of the contract with their hands or fingers to conceal the extra charges.
5 HAVING A JOINT OPERATION
There is competition among the mobile phone shops, but they generally help each other, Marcus said.
"After a customer is ripped off, he would usually feel aggrieved and check out prices in the other shops.
"A shop assistant may tail him to another shop and quickly inform his neighbour of his final price," he said.
The neighbouring shop will then quote the aggrieved customer an even higher price, he said.
"That way, the customer will think he didn't get the worst deal. This will help minimise complaints," he said.
The customer is in a bind as he has signed the contract. The shop assistants will not give him the phone until he pays the full amount. Even if he calls the police, they can’t do much because his signature is on the contract.
RECENT SIM LIM SQUARE CASES
WOMAN REPAID $1,010 IN COINS
Last Tuesday, a Chinese national studying here was refunded $1,010 in coins. She had earlier been asked to fork out $1,400, on top of the $1,600 that she had agreed to pay for an iPhone 6 Plus.
She took her case to the Small Claims Tribunal, which ruled that the shop, Mobile Air, owned by Mr Jover Chew, refund her the money.
VIETNAMESE MAN BEGS FOR REFUND
Mr Chew's shop, Mobile Air, struck again on Monday when Mr Pham Van Thoai, 28, a factory worker from Vietnam, went to there to buy an iPhone 6. After paying $950 for the phone, he was told to pay another $1,500 for the warranty.
He eventually lost $550 to the shop and left without the phone. The story of how he knelt, cried and begged the staff went viral.
On Oct 19, a 19-year-old undergraduate was reduced to tears at Mobile 22 after being told she had to pay $1,000 on top of the $999 she had already paid for an iPhone 6.
She claimed the seller had strategically covered a portion of the contract with his finger, and she found out about it only after she had signed it.
MALAYSIAN DIVER IN PHONE DISPUTE
Last month, Mr Ooi Tze Liang, a 20-year-old Commonwealth Games gold medallist from Malaysia, was overcharged by more than $2,000 for two iPhone 6s at Mobile Planet.
His coaches blamed his poor showing at the Singapore Fina Diving Grand Prix 2014 finals on the dispute. His diving event took place a day after the Sim Lim Square incident.