THERE is an old, bulging concertina file on my desk at home, full of warranties, invoices and credit agreements spanning at least 15 years.
It needs a major clean-out but it's a task so tedious, I've put it off for years.
I've often been tempted to dump the whole file in my rubbish bin. But besides that being a silly move - documents containing personal details should either be shredded or burnt before discarding - I'd be throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.
The long-expired guarantee on my kettle, the service bill on a car I last drove a decade ago, and pay slips from a previous employer are no longer important and can safely be tossed. But not so the receipt for last month's speeding fine, a copy of my insurance policy, or my home-loan agreement with the bank.
And definitely not any retail credit agreements, even those already paid up.
Why? Because these documents are legally binding and vital in a dispute, and because you can't always rely on the other party - the bank, the retailer, the municipality - to keep their copies safe.
This was brought home to me recently by Port Elizabeth reader Denise Watson. The administration and human resource manager for City Paint & Tool (a group of hardware stores in the Eastern Cape and George) received a lawyer's letter and court garnishee order in 2010 for one of the company's employees.
She was instructed to deduct R1000 a month from his salary; the worker, a general assistant, earned just over R2000 at the time.
She started digging into the matter, which led her to JDG Financial Services, a division of JDG Trading, which owns furniture chain Joshua Doore.
The 30-year-old employee, it turns out, had signed a credit agreement for the purchase of almost R50000 worth of household goods - including a music system, bedroom and dining suite, under-counter hob and oven, colour TV, and washing machine - from Joshua Doore's Uitenhage branch in 2007.
The semiliterate employee was recorded on the sales document as being an assistant manager, earning R7500 a month. Watson, who knew the employee's salary in 2007 had been around R1 600, immediately smelt a rat.
"The employee said he and his brother-in-law - casually employed at the time - were together when the credit agreement was signed. He said his brother-in-law did most of the talking with the salesperson while he and his sister looked around the store," said Watson.
The employee recalled signing an agreement and producing his pay slip but could not remember if his brother-in-law had co-signed.
He didn't have a copy of the credit agreement, so Watson asked Joshua Doore for one. The retailer couldn't produce it.
Watson then delayed implementing the garnishee order by arranging for the brother-in-law to start paying, and also tried to get the order changed into his name. But when only one payment was made, the lawyers came knocking on Watson's door again - and she came to me.
JDG Financial Services launched an investigation into the case; the upshot of which has been the waiving of the debt.
Chief executive Philip Kruger said the customer had concluded various credit agreements with Electric Express - part of the same group - and Joshua Doore during 2006 and 2007.
The first R4050 agreement with Electric Express had been "regularly paid". Based on the good history of this account, said Kruger, the customer was approved for a second agreement of R12250 and a third for R48492 - with an instalment of R1347 - in January 2007.
Kruger said: "Regular monthly instalments totalling R2028 were received in respect of all three accounts for five months; this was despite [the customer] only earning a gross income of R1748 as per City Paint records.
"Regrettably, the latter credit agreements have still not been located to validate whether additional family income and/or other income was noted, which may account for the regular monthly payments of R2028 and the granting of the credit amounts above.
"It was and is still our policy to verify and consider combined household income in respect of certain purchases," Kruger said.
In 2008 the customer had applied for relief from his creditors through the administration order process - which is similar to debt review - but included only the Electric Express debt, possibly supporting the assumption that the other two agreements included the family, on the understanding they'd pay the instalments, Kruger said.
"All of these transactions were concluded prior to the inception of the National Credit Act [June 2007] and it has since been our policy to eliminate any misunderstanding of the obligations and charges under a credit agreement that a consumer might have."
He said that, following Watson's intervention in 2010, and based on an assessment at the time, the two Joshua Doore accounts had been written off.
"This was, however, erroneously processed as a bad-debt write-off and not as a full and final write-off, which resulted in the customer being garnished. Based on this, we will immediately expunge the balance of R36764 in respect of all of three accounts and will not request the return of these goods."
Watson's employee was lucky he had a caring manager in his corner. Millions of vulnerable consumers don't.
At the SA Revenue Service for the super efficiency of its e-filing system. Reader Peter Newell filed his 2012 tax return on Sunday at 11am. The refund due was in his bank account on Tuesday. "It can't get much better than that," said Newell.
At a manager at Nedbank's Pick n Pay Hypermarket branch in Durban North, who said she couldn't swap a torn R100 note withdrawn minutes before from its ATM. An employee eventually swapped a note from his own pocket to assist the client.