Lawn care services can lead you down garden path

March 21 2016 by Ellen Roseman

When you sign up with a lawn care company, you give it the freedom to bill for services you don’t receive — and to continue billing for the following year without your consent.

A reader told me about his experience with a company called TruGreen, beginning in 2014. Here’s his story.

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Our 100 foot frontage property is about 300 feet deep. We answered a “cold call” at the front door and met with a sales representative, who offered a no obligation quotation for weed control and fertilizer treatment.

I did a “walk about” of the whole property, pointing out the weeds that were stubborn and the parts that posed a particular challenge.

TruGreen was the only local company with equipment and hoses that could cover the entire property, the salesman said. He assured us a good response to fertilizing and weed control throughout the property.

Since he gave us a good price with a discount for prepayment, I signed a contract. Pretty soon, I noticed favourable results in the front area, but not at the rear.

Concerned that part of the property was not responding, I called to confirm that the whole property was treated each visit. I was suspicious because of a fine-print disclaimer on the invoice, saying that treatment was offered for a maximum of 3,000 square feet.

The whole property was being treated, I was told, adding that the company would put a special note on file to ensure that the technician did so.

In the end, after several conversations, TruGreen acknowledged that the whole property had not been receiving treatment, after all. The costs would be significantly higher than my contract specified if the whole property were to be treated.

I was not satisfied. Knowing of the continuous service language in the contract, including “your plan continues from year to year without any action on your part,” and “your plan will continue unless you contact us to cancel,” I made clear at the end of the season that I was cancelling the arrangement.

The following season, I was lucky enough to be at home when the technician arrived to begin treatment of my lawn for the second season. This happened despite my clear communication on the matter.

I noted that TruGreen was named in several press articles surrounding billing practices, such as this one in The Record.

Now that spring has arrived, consumers can expect any number of cold calls from roofing, window, eavestrough, siding and pool contractors, as well as lawn services. We need to be vigilant and protect ourselves with measures such as the following:

* Secure all understandings in writing, signed by a service representative who is authorized to bind the service.

* Review and act, as needed, on all the contract terms including contractor provisions for “continuous service” and customer cancellation privileges.

* Take special note of waivers and guarantees.

* Look for professional credentials and memberships (TruGreen has not been a member of Landscape Ontario, for example).

* As much as possible, monitor the service and be satisfied that you receive the service you contracted for.

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Great advice and thanks to the reader for sharing his experience, to which I will add a final point.

You have 10 days under Ontario law to cancel contracts signed at your door. Use this cooling off period to do your research and pull the plug on lawn care contracts with big holes in them.

Customer urges switching banks to save fees

March 16 2016 by Ellen Roseman

Adam Mayers of the Toronto Star wrote about bank fees going up again. When he asked readers how they felt, 88 per cent said their bank fees were too high.

He suggested five ways to reduce them:

Go into your branch and ask. It’s the best way to figure out if you’re paying too much based on how you bank. The more business you have with the bank, the better the deal should be.

If you’re a student or your kids are students, a no-fee deal should be available.

Those over 60 should expect discounts, but not freebies. There are too many people in the demographic now to expect something for nothing. TD’s basic discount, for example, is 25 per cent for this group.

Many fee-free options relate to minimum balances in your account. If you keep a large sum in a savings account that is earning next to nothing, consider moving that cash to a chequing account. The fee savings may more than offset the interest earned.

Branch out. A credit union or low-fee option like PC Financial, Tangerine and EQ Bank can work for some of your needs.

Michael, a Toronto Star reader, grew tired of facing increases in TD’s minimum balance required to avoid fees. So, he moved to online bank Tangerine. Here is his story.

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My wife and I were frustrated with TD’s ever-increasing minimum balances. We made a few attempts to argue that our $100+ a week mortgage interest outweighed the $11 a month service fee we were paying on our chequing account (since we were challenged to maintain the new $3,000 minimum).

Since we didn’t get anywhere, we made the bold leap to Tangerine Bank. There were two reasons for the switch:

1. The large majority of our banking is done online. We make infrequent branch visits (generally, to renegotiate the mortgage or to buy U.S. cash for bi-yearly trips south) and we did not believe we should be paying $11 for what was perceived as a subsidy for branch staffing.

2. Tying up $3,000 as a cost-avoidance method made no financial sense to us.

While our experience in changing banks was fairly smooth, it did have some moments of frustration.

· With Tangerine being an online-focused service, working through the mortgage transfer involved a few ‘real’ people. Communication between these people was not always great and we had a couple of moments wondering if the transaction was processing properly.

· Tellers at TD could not perform some of the transactions (mostly to do with transferring and closing our trading accounts), which meant we had to revert back to online and over-the-phone transactions.

· Transferring preauthorized payments began smoothly. Tangerine has a robust ‘switch assistant’ and a couple went without hitch (utilities mostly). Others involved going directly to the payee and updating the database personally.

We were thrilled when it was all complete and we were actually paid interest ($0.26!) at the end of the first month. This was a novel concept with a chequing account, but a satisfying one!

If you feel the increasing fees and minimum balances are outrageous, I urge you to investigate moving to one of the growing number of alternative banking solutions.

The big banks should all be taking notice, as I am sure more Canadians will be choosing these online options (with in-branch affiliations), especially given our penchant to embrace online and mobile tools.

How to estimate costs of post-secondary education

February 17 2016 by Ellen Roseman

Here is a guest post from Alfred Yang, a co-founder of a new website aimed at helping parents plan for the bills when their kids reach college or university.

How a Small Team is Helping Canadians Plan Finances for Post-Secondary Education

By Alfred Yang

I received my undergraduate degree in engineering in the year 2000. Without a doubt, my post-secondary education gave me an edge in the job market and opened up incredible career opportunities.

Today, the financial barrier to the same credential is much higher. Annual tuition for the engineering program has gone up from $4,500 in the year 2000 to over $13,000 in 2016. For a four year program, that’s a whopping $52,000.

To put it another way, this amounts to an annual increase of over 7%, well beyond the rate of inflation. If you add living expenses and school supplies, the cost becomes even more alarming.

Today, the average new grad from university or college owes $28,000 in student debt. Canada’s outstanding student loan balance has been steadily climbing in the past two decades and there are no signs of it going in the opposite direction.

While I can’t do much about rising costs, I joined forces with Aly Hirji and Scott Moore to build awareness and encourage sound financial planning.

The cost of the engineering program I described is just one example. Everyone’s situation is different and we want to find a way to help Canadians on a more personal level. That’s why we created Proliteracy.ca.

Proliteracy.ca is a tool that forecasts the cost of post-secondary education and helps students and parents plan finances accordingly.

Let’s say you have 10-year-old daughter who is fascinated by animals. You think she may want to study life science one day. You want to give her the best shot at attending a great post-secondary institution.

But even with that goal in mind, there are a number of crucial questions that need to be answered:

- How much money do you need to be saving?

- What is the cost difference between studying locally and out of province?

- What financing options besides the family’s savings are available?

- If a student loan is required, what kind of financial burden will that create for my child?

Proliteracy.ca is designed to help. It starts by asking you a few simple questions, then makes predictions on tuition, cost of living and expenses, based on historical data.

The end result is a good estimate of the financial target you or your family should be aiming for when planning for post-secondary education.

Our team also wants to build awareness of the many funding options available, including the Canadian Learning Bond (CLB) and Canadian Education Savings Grant (CESG), and the impact they have on your overall RESP savings.

We are building up a database of scholarships, student aid services and borrowing vehicles. We hope Proliteracy.ca can become an end-to-end tool to help Canadians create a strong financial plan for post-secondary education.

Since our pilot launch in October, we’ve received a lot of feedback. We’ve seen a desire to understand trends in the job market to assist with decisions on academic studies.

We know that university or college is not the only path to a fulfilling career, so we are looking into adding forecasts for trades and apprenticeships.

While our team is making great strides towards these objectives, we can get there a lot faster by working with individuals and organizations who share the same passion for educating students and families.

If you have any feedback at all, we’d love to hear from you.

Financial literacy month winds up soon

November 24 2015 by Ellen Roseman

This is the fifth year for FLM. You can find events at the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada website or go to Twitter and use the hashtags #FLM2015 and #CountMeInCA.

Jane Rooney, Canada’s first financial literacy leader, goes to almost everything. I can’t imagine how she keeps up the pace without flagging.

I moderated panels at a few events, such the ABLE Financial Empowerment Conference and Credit Education Week’s launch.

I also went to a conference organized by the Financial Literacy Action Group, a nonprofit coalition working to improve Canadians’ knowledge, skills and confidence in managing money and advance the national strategy.

There I met a remarkable entrepreneur, Teresa Cascioli, who has written and published a series of books for children, age four to nine, under the brand M is for Money. Here is my column about her.

Tomorrow morning, I’m invited to attend the Economic Club of Canada’s financial literacy panel discussion.

Next Monday (Nov. 30), I’ll be the keynote speaker at Toronto’s financial learning forum. It is a free half-day event, featuring workshops on tax and financing for small business, repaying student loans and qualifying for benefits.

Why has Canada embarked on a national strategy in the first place? I recommend reading this 2012 article in the Walrus magazine about our national deficit in financial intelligence.

I want to spotlight the Investor Be Aware video contest, run by the Small Investor Protection Association to show the hidden dangers of dealing with financial advisers. Here is a link to the three winning YouTube videos.

Finally, many statistical studies are released this month, designed to show the level of Canadians’ financial capability. Here is one of the most interesting surveys sent to me.

The Global Financial Literacy Survey

Canada has one of the highest financial literacy rates, ranking among the top five in the world and scoring above countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and France.

However, the study also found that Canada suffers from one of the largest gender gaps, with 77% of men financially literate against just 60% of women.

In almost every country, there is a material gap between men and women. Worldwide, there is a five-point gender gap, with 35% of men being financially literate compared with 30% of women.

Country averages include the U.S. with a 10% gender gap, Germany 12% and Italy 15%.

In Canada, however, the situation is far more pronounced with a 17% gender gap – twice as large as the gap in major advanced economies, the so-called G7.

Get Human and 800 Numbers.net open doors for you

September 9 2015 by Ellen Roseman

You want to call a big company, but you can’t reach a real person who can resolve your problem. Welcome to the modern world.

It’s a common dilemma in an age of automated phones with multiple menu options. Most of the time, you get a recording and a long wait on hold, accompanied by messages to use the company’s website to get better service.

Going online is not always a solution. Sometimes, you really want to speak to someone and tell your story, rather than using a live chat at a website.

If you find it impossible to get through to some firms, you can try a website called Get Human. When calling Apple, for example, you can find the quickest way to reach a real person.

This U.S. site lists many Canadian companies, as you can see from my Star column about it in 2013. A useful page tells you how to get through to Bell Canada.

Now I’ve learned of another website, 800 Numbers.net, which has a few Canadian toll-free numbers. Here is how to get through to Air Canada– a company whose phone numbers are always a challenge for customers to find — and TD Bank.

“The numbers are accompanied by written transcriptions of the company phone menus, so that users can get what the help they need quickly,” says Webmaster Melissa Clark.

It is great to know that such services exist. They are breaking through the deep, dark channels of corporate communication and making it easy for customers to talk to their suppliers.

A consumer’s guide to stock market volatility

September 1 2015 by Ellen Roseman

Another day of stock market losses around the world. Every commentator has a list of reasons why it’s happening. Can you believe them?

On The Media is one of my favourite podcasts. It enlisted Felix Salmon, a blogger with Fusion, to explain why journalists are wrong to cover falling stock prices so intensely. Here are some excerpts:

One day’s activity — up or down — may seem dramatic, but has little significance and foretells nothing.

Billions of shares of stocks are traded every day. Attributing the day’s results to any single factor is ridiculous. In fact, there are millions of factors and, therefore, no explanation.

The media treat the market going down like a passenger plane going down. A plunging stock market is not a tragedy. For the vast majority of investors, it’s an opportunity to buy stocks more cheaply.

Though “stocks going down” makes news, that doesn’t reflect broader reality. Look at historical trends. Over time, the equities market steadily goes up.

Felix Salmon’s articles at Fusion continue on a contrarian track. In a Aug. 24 piece, “Three cheers for the plunging stock market,” he emphasized that the economy is going to be fine even if the market goes down.

The stock market is NOT the economy. Instead, it’s a measure of wealth, showing how rich rich people are.

“If the rich are getting a little bit poorer, that’s fine. It means reduced inequality and an ever so slightly more level playing field for everybody else.”

Do you want to learn about investing? My nine-week course at University of Toronto starts Sept. 10. To sign up for the Thursday night sessions, go to Continuing Studies and search for Investing for Beginners.

How to resolve your consumer issues

February 21 2015 by Ellen Roseman

Here is a guest post from Annie Gelfand, a life coach who has has success in resolving her own consumer issues. I’m posting a summary here and her expanded tips in the comments below.

In today’s automated and web connected world, it is getting more challenging for consumers to resolve product and service-related issues.

Call centres are now the “go to” customer service solution. However, dealing with a call centre is time consuming and can leave you frustrated and ready to tear your head off. What is a consumer to do?

I have had some success in resolving my own problems. So, let me share my step-by-step consumer satisfaction process:

STEP ONE: ESCALATE. Move your complaint up to a supervisor or team leader.

STEP TWO: KNOW THE COMPETITION. Research other options.

STEP THREE: FIND OUT WHO THE MOVERS AND SHAKERS ARE. You have to be diligent to find the phone numbers and who’s who at corporate headquarters.

STEP FOUR: USE SOCIAL MEDIA TO SHAME THEM. If all else fails, find the company’s Twitter and Facebook pages and POLITELY post your comments.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Be polite at all times.

Know what you want.

Write everything down.

Get commitments in writing.

Make the company commit to a date.

Help, someone is pretending to be me

January 10 2015 by Ellen Roseman

When I get complaints about large companies, I send them to my corporate contacts to resolve. I deal with these people regularly and they get to know me.

A large appliance company contact recently alerted to something fishy. They had received an email, supposedly from me, but the email address looked suspicious. Was it a request I had sent through?

It was definitely not my email address, eroseman@thestar.ca. It was a Gmail address that had my name and a reference to the Toronto Star (tstar). And the writing style was not mine, either.

“I’m working on an article that prints next Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Canada’s largest newspaper. I’m giving you an opportunity to provide a quote on the following case that was handled by your customer service department on Dec. 30,” the fake Ellen Roseman wrote.

The person had a dishwasher, just over two years old, that was giving him low water sensor messages. He reported the problem twice during the warranty period and had it fixed. A third repair was done out of warranty as a good will gesture.

But when the same thing happened a fourth time, he was given the phone number of a local appliance repair service.

“As three previous repairs have been unsuccessful, we are seeking a credit voucher for replacement of the dishwasher with a different model,” my impersonator said.” If this is not possible, we are asking that you repair the machine with a promise that any work be guaranteed for one year (not just 90 days).”

The so-called Ellen Roseman said she would proceed with a story to appear in the Star’s business section on Jan. 7 if she didn’t receive a response by Jan. 5.

Threats are a tactic I rarely use, especially with a date attached. Anyway, I was on holiday at the time, not writing any columns at all.

This was my first case of professional identity theft (using details cut and pasted from my website). I wanted to follow up with the perpetrator.

Luckily, the dishwasher owner’s name, address and phone number appeared in the email. It was easy to track him down.

The appliance company called him to discuss his complaint. He was informed that I had seen the email and I had denied writing it.

The Star’s business editor, Doug Cudmore, also called and emailed, asking him to stop pretending to be me. After a few days, he responded.

“The voicemail was sheepish. He apologized several times, profusely, promised never to do it again and said we could call him back if we wanted to speak to him,” Doug said.

Surprisingly, he had never approached me directly and asked me to advocate on his behalf. I would have tried to help. Instead, he’d tried another — unorthodox, if not illegal — route.

If you have a consumer complaint about a large brand-name company, feel free to contact me by email. Please stick to policy issues, not personal issues, and try to be concise. I will forward it to my corporate contacts.

My new course: I’ll be talking about how to value companies and pick the right stocks at University of Toronto continuing studies on Monday nights, 7 to 9 p.m., starting Jan. 12. The cost is $250. You can find a link to register on my home page.

When is the best time to invest?

September 11 2014 by Ellen Roseman

Marie Engen, who writes the Boomer and Echo blog with her son Robb, talks about people who feel they can’t invest in stocks when the markets are hot. They ask, “Is it too late to buy?” and keep their savings in bank deposits at low interest rates.

Here is Marie’s response:

There is a common fear of investing at the top of the market – resulting in your staring at big losses right off the bat.

Of course, there’s always the possibility of investing right before a market downturn. But no one knows for sure when this will occur.

An acquaintance remarked last year that the market was overheating and a correction was surely due shortly. This was when the S&P/TSX Composite Index was around 12,800. Today (as of this writing), it sits at 15,550. In the meantime, he has stayed on the sidelines waiting.

Rather than fretting about when you should make your move, think instead about how long you’re planning to keep the money in the market.

Stocks are a very attractive option for long-term goals and will generally provide the best return on investment.

As the pundits say, time in the market is better than timing the market. You may live a long time, so why dump your stocks when you turn 60 or 65?

You can hold more conservative investments in your retirement years. But you should keep some money in the stock market to preserve your purchasing power.

My investing class starts tonight. Close to 90 people have enrolled, a record number.

When I asked why they signed up, I heard a variety of reasons:

– I want to understand the lingo.
– I want to learn about ETFs (exchange-traded funds).
– I want to be my own financial adviser.
– I want to prepare for the “soap opera” visits with my adviser.
– I want to find out how to reinvest company dividends.
– I want to pay for courses outside Canada in five years.

All these reasons make sense, except maybe the last. Five years is too short a period for your stock market investments to flourish, especially when you come in after a long bull market.

Here is an article I sent to the students from a U.S. blog, 7 Ways Investing Sucks (and why you should do it anyway).

Investing takes work, though you can find couch potato portfolios that demand little time. It’s an essential life skill. I’m glad to see so many people recognize they have to take control.

My interview with Mint.com

September 4 2014 by Ellen Roseman

I am a fan of Mint’s personal finance website, which came to Canada a few years ago. So I happily agreed to an interview and a link on my blog roll.

Here’s an excerpt from the article, where I express views that won’t surprise my faithful readers.

What industries do you think are the biggest offenders when it comes to unfair practices toward consumers?

Telecom troubles usually top the list. Canadians have three big wireless providers, which charge high prices and bind customers to unfair contracts. Complaints about phone, Internet and TV service keep me busy every day.

Another big area is financial services – everything from banking to credit to investing. We have a few large banks in Canada which like to say they’re on the consumer’s side. But their practices are often designed to maximize profits and favour shareholders.

What are the most common consumer frustrations, concerns or questions your readers come to you with?

Consumers are frustrated by how much energy it takes to reach large companies. And when companies settle a dispute, they don’t always compensate clients for the time spent pursuing complaints. So I go to bat for my readers to get them extra concessions.

Contracts can be confusing when written in legalese and laid out in a font size too small to read. Many customers don’t check their contracts, but trust what they are told by salespeople. That leads to heartache when a company denies a claim as based on hearsay.

If you wonder about using Mint.com to track your finances, here are a few reviews:

Investor Junkie blog: Likes the site very much, but wishes there was more investing information. It’s a weakness.

PC Magazine: Best tool for managing personal finances. The fact that it’s free seals the deal.

Young and Thrifty blog: Loved the site, but was worried about online hackers and broke up the relationship.

Moneysense magazine: Be careful. Using a third-party financial aggregator can violate your security guarantee with your bank.