Opportunities in LawTech in Africa

Fax to mail is a service which delivers faxes addressed to your unique fax number directly to the email system on your computer, regardless of where you are in the world. The fax number is provided free when you register. For the recipient, there are no monthly charges, no wasted paper, no printing costs, and you won’t need to buy a fax machine or rent a fixed fax line. Fax to mail also offers some other benefits.

For example, you can receive many faxes at the same time. And you can receive faxes even when your computer is turned off, since the received faxes are stored by your Internet service provider until you download them. So for personal use, fax to email is a really useful service. But does it work for law firms?

Wendy Parker, IT manager of a Pietermaritzburg law firm warns “Extreme caution and being fully aware of the pitfalls is required before adopting new technology. When making use of fax to email services, one needs to be aware that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Up until now, faxing was a strong medium of communication. Since the cross-breeding of fax and email, a weak link has crept in, requiring serious consideration.

“A conventional fax machine initiates a connection, and the receiving machine responds to this connection – commonly referred to as a “handshake”. Throughout transmission of a document, the two machines keep synchronising with each other, confirming they are both on the same page (even on the same place on the same page) – and if there is any problem during transmission, an error is generated and both sender and receiver are notified of this fact. After the successful transmission a confirmation of the number of pages transmitted is confirmed between the two machines before the call is disconnected. This is a very highly accurate standard of synchronisation.

“Email, on the other hand, does not have the above reliable sophistication of confirmation and synchronisation and has only very limited mechanisms for tracking a sent message and verifying that it has been delivered to the intended recipient. Emails can be lost for many reasons and can be blocked or dropped by various spam filtering service providers.

“The sender sends a fax, and the service provider’s platform will convert the fax to a digital picture, usually ‘tif’ format, and transmit it via email to the recipient’s associated email address. The sender of the fax receives a standard fax transmission journal indicating that the fax was successfully transmitted and this is where the glitch comes in: the successful transmission was to the service provider’s server and not to the final recipient’s email address. Once their server has received the fax, it attempts to send the email to the recipient’s email address. If unsuccessful, due to power failure, system failure, blockage by a spam filter, etc., the email is dropped and the fax has disappeared into the ether. The sender, however, has a successful transmission journal in his file, which is acceptable in court as proof of the document being sent and successfully received!”

Neil Dillingham, a director of fax to email vendor Digiworx acknowledges that sometimes faxes don’t make it to the intended recipient, but says that there are always valid reasons why this happens. Most common is finger trouble he says – where the sender of a manual fax forgets to type a 0 in to get an outside line. So where the fax was intended to go to a 086 number, it gets routed to an 86 number instead, which is then rejected. In a busy practice, the secretary might not notice that the fax wasn’t successfully sent, and the ‘rejected’ notification simply gets filed. Whenever Dillingham receives a complaint of a fax that didn’t reach the recipient, he asks for a copy of the sent confirmation from the manual fax machine, and from there he can usually deduce the cause of the problem. “To date, I have not found any fax that disappeared without a valid explanation”, he says. “Another regular cause for missing faxes is that email settings at the recipient firm sometimes relegate the fax to Junk mail, or the fax gets rejected by the Mail Marshall because it contains an attached TIF file” says Dillingham.

Notwithstanding the problems with failed deliveries, Dillingham still believes that a fax sent to an email address is more likely to reach its intended recipient than a fax sent to a corporate fax machine, since paper faxes regularly get lost between fax machine and recipient. “It’s just not practical right now to provide proof that a fax has reached the intended recipient with fax to email. For various reasons, email can take time to reach its destination. Maybe the mail server at the recipient only checks for email every five minutes. That means that the fax to email system would need to call the sending fax back five minutes later to provide proof of receipt.” says Dillingham.

“That’s not the only problem”, says Parker. “This service is by no means free. These 086 numbers are ‘Premium Rate’ numbers. The sender of a fax does not pay a normal Telkom land line rate of 60 cents per minute, but rather a whopping R2.02. Now that doesn’t sound like much if you only send a few faxes a day, but in an organisation that sends volumes of faxes, it can add up to many thousands of rands a month.” By way of example, Parker recently did a comparison of costs at her firm. In one month 185 faxes were sent to 086 numbers at a cost of R460 (R2.48 each) and 470 faxes were sent to Telkom land lines at a cost of R321 (R1.46 each).

But if you’re the recipient of these faxes, then this isn’t really your problem, although the law firm’s clients might balk at the prospect of paying the higher rate of sending a fax to a 086 number. The reverse could also be a problem for the law firm if its clients insist that they send faxes to them on their 086 fax line, since the firm then pays R2.02 per minute.

There is also a perception that these days, email meets most of the document transfer needs in a law practice. “Not so”, says Dillingham. “More faxes are being sent today than ever before.” So is it time to use your existing fax machine as a boat anchor? Not just yet, because there are times when sending a manual fax is still more convenient than using email – like when you want to send a sketch or diagram, or perhaps a signed contract. Or where the document being faxed was received on paper, where there is no electronic copy. With both email and the fax to email sending service, you first need to scan the documents into your computer system using an image scanner. While that might sound easy, it can turn out to be a nightmare. For example, the image file can end up being too large to send, especially if it has a number of pages. It also takes time to scan the paper document (small scanners are slow) and to attach it to an email, and of course, most law firms don’t have readily accessible document scanners.

But for the home user, where you only receive faxes every now and then, fax to email provides a good alternative, although there are one or two other stings in the tail. Bear in mind that the service provider has to pay for the rental of every fax to mail number each month. So if you’re not an ‘active’ user, the service provider loses money on you. That’s why some vendors have inserted a clause into their terms and conditions that states that it is a condition of use that a customer who has been allocated a number shall receive at least one fax per month. And if the user doesn’t receive a fax per month, they reserve the right to cancel and to withdraw the number from the customer and re-allocate it to a new user. Dillingham says that at Digiworx they handle this differently. If a user hasn’t received any faxes for a quarter, they send an email asking if the user wishes to continue, and the account is only deleted if the user does not respond or says “no”. While that may be intrusive, at least the fax account isn’t withdrawn. Another vendor simply states that they reserve the right to terminate usage at any time.

There is one other problem with cancelled fax numbers being re-allocated to new users. If the re-allocated fax number has already been given out to clients by the old ‘owner’, but due to inactivity it is then cancelled, clients may still send faxes to that number. This could present a confidentiality problem, and the fax is certainly not reaching its intended recipient. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to resolve this problem other than never re-allocating a previously allocated number to a new account, which is apparently not possible due to the limited number of 086 numbers being made available to the service providers.

On at least one of the services there is also a clause binding the signatory to the agreement as personal surety. So while signing up in your personal capacity or as the managing partner of a small law firm is fine, you probably don’t want to bind yourself as surety for the fax costs that might be incurred by a large practice. Our advice? While most software users simply click the “I accept the terms and conditions” checkbox during the install process, we suggest that you actually read the terms and conditions for a fax to email service before ticking that checkbox. 

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