Advice: Check emails confirming travel plans for possible errors

Last August, Sandy Callahan booked a package tour with G Adventures. It started in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Oct. 29 and ended in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 14.

The same day, she went to online travel agency Expedia to book a flight from Toronto to Hanoi and a return flight from Bangkok to Toronto.

Expedia suggested she find a hotel, so she reserved a room at the O’Gallery Premier Hotel & Spa in Hanoi in advance of the tour.

“I booked what I thought was a one-night stay,” she said. “I briefly noticed that the total was over $1,000, but I thought that my flight and hotel were combined. I normally book a flight and hotel with Expedia, but this was not a simple return flight.”

Six hours later, the hotel in Hanoi sent an email, confirming that she had a reservation for 17 days in total.

“I was shocked to discover the length of stay was not what I had input,” she said. “Expedia’s customer service rep tried to contact the hotel, but couldn’t reach anyone with the authority to change the reservation.”

A day later, Expedia sent her an email, blaming the hotel for making a non-refundable booking.

“We have advocated your case with O’Gallery Premier Hotel & Spa,” the online travel agency said. “Due to their policy, they have unfortunately denied your request of cancelling your reservation.

“We apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused. We hope you will give us an opportunity to assist you with your travel plans again soon.”

Callahan waited six weeks. Expedia told her it would plead with the hotel to change the refund policy in her case or find other travellers to take over her reservation. No luck.

She got a refund of about $1,300 a few days after I contacted Expedia’s Canadian office in late September. I’ve had excellent results dealing with this company on behalf of Toronto Star readers in 2019 and again in 2017.

“We connected with the hotel, advocated on the traveller’s behalf and have gone ahead and processed a refund for 16 of the 17 nights,” Expedia spokesperson Mary Zajac said.

Expedia’s advice for travellers is (1) Double check confirmation emails at the time of booking; and (2) Make sure everything you expected is reflected correctly when you check out or when the email is sent to you.

I agree. Reviewing confirmation emails ASAP lets you correct errors without incurring a penalty. But in this case, there was a gap of only six hours.

“This should have been a small enough lapse to grant me a change in what was obviously an error originating with Expedia,” Callahan said.

“I feel they should have been more persuasive in getting the hotel to change the reservation, since they have the full clout of Expedia.com, Hotels.com and more.

“I am an Expedia Gold customer and I expected more from them.”

Note to blog readers: You can now get my updates through Mail Chimp. Sign up at the right side of the home page on your computer.

I plan to continue my consumer advocacy here, though you may have wondered about it when I disappeared for the last month.

Blame it on a tendency to overbook myself with speaking engagements, teaching continuing education courses, volunteer work and some travel. Now I’m ready to start blogging again and getting your comments.

Expensive Whirlpool fridge never worked properly

Mindy Pollishuke paid $2,700 for a KitchenAid refrigerator in 2013. It was a KFIS29PBMS French door model with 28.6 cubic feet of space.

Alas, her fancy fridge needed repairs twice a year. The ice buildup was so extensive that it would overheat and stop working.

“We had to empty the whole fridge out multiple times and find neighbours to store our food temporarily,” she said. “The extra bar fridge and small freezer we bought a few years ago were not big enough to hold it.”

In January 2019, after the fridge died three times in one week, she wrote to me in despair. I contacted Whirlpool (the manufacturer), which offered a cash settlement to let her buy a new model.

While happy to get rid of her lemon, Pollishuke didn’t like the buyback offer of only $1,362.78. It didn’t reflect the cost of repairs and the replacement cost of a new fridge.

Last month, I went back to Whirlpool to plead for a bigger buyback. I couldn’t imagine living with the disruption of emptying my fridge every six months and finding shelter for its contents elsewhere.

Whirlpool’s customer service department had a warm heart after all. It offered a full refund of $3,049.87 (including tax) for her six-year-old refrigerator that didn’t cool properly.

“I can’t thank you enough for all your assistance through this very frustrating ordeal,” Pollishuke said.

She’s not alone. If you check reviews for this model at Amazon.com, you find that 91 per cent of purchasers give it a rating of one star out of five.

Here are some of the headlines:

“Horrible. Do not buy this product.”
“Manufacturer knows there is a problem and will not replace, even if field warranty service cannot fix it.”
“LEMON — Beautiful design, terrible company warranty policy.”

My advice: Don’t buy an appliance unless you check reviews online and at Consumer Reports. Don’t buy a new model with no track record.

Finally, do buy from a retailer that will help you fight for a settlement on a defective product. Life is too short to wait for a manufacturer to fix the unfixable.

Update on Apple Watch case

Matt Caron found a crack in his Apple Watch’s glass face just three days after his one-year warranty expired. Both Apple and the store (Best Buy) said he didn’t qualify for extended warranty repairs.

“Good news and bad news,” Caron said on Sept. 20. “I’ve been advised that the hardware engineering team agreed with the technician that my watch doesn’t qualify for this support program.”

Apple Canada suggested he go back to Best Buy to ask for free repairs. But since Best Buy denied his claim before, he didn’t have the energy to reach out again.

“Apple then said it would make an exception and fix my screen at no cost to me (normally $300),” Caron continued.

“I was disappointed with the decision. Not that I didn’t want my watch fixed, but I felt Apple didn’t believe my story and failed to address my concerns. Why did this happen and what prevents it from happening again?

“I know I should be happy that the screen will be repaired at no cost, but that is almost secondary to how I was treated and how others are treated with the same watch problem.”

It’s a familiar story. Product makers find a problem with a product, but don’t make it public. They wait for a class action to be filed or a flood of complaints to hit the media.

If the defect is safety-related, companies may issue a recall. But if there’s no immediate danger, they may try to make secret deals with complainants in hopes of avoiding publicity.

So, in the interests of transparency, I’m publicizing this case and asking readers to share it.

Remember the iPhone 6 battery replacement program in 2017? Apple was embarrassed by media reports that it was slowing down the phones to make them last longer and offered a low-cost replacement program as a result of public pressure.

That’s what can happen when frustrated buyers learn about a widespread problem with a product and push for reform.

Problems with shattered glass on the Apple Watch

Here’s part of a Toronto Star column I wrote last year about a quality issue with a high-end manufacturer:

Apple denies watch defect that sees screen break,
but makes time to fix it

By Ellen Roseman
Personal Finance Columnist
Mon., Dec. 24, 2018

Holly Harris bought an Apple Watch this past August, a Series 3 product currently selling at $369 to $499.

Just 20 days later, she had a frightening problem.

While watching TV, she reached across her watch to press a button to check data. The screen was raised and she tried to put it back in.

“As I did, the glass started to break into smithereens. I cut my hand,” she says.

Harris, a former elementary school principal who lives in Mississauga, went back to the Apple Store, hoping to get a new watch.

Instead, the store manager said she must have banged the screen, causing it to break. She would have to pay $299 to get it repaired.

Here’s the happy ending:

I forwarded her complaint to Tara Hendela, an Apple Canada spokesperson, on Nov. 7.

“I can’t believe how fast Apple responded,” Harris said the next day, adding that she was instructed to take pictures of her watch and send them to the head office in Cupertino, Calif.

On Dec. 3, she got the answer she had been waiting to hear.

“Great news. My contact just phoned and said Apple would repair (or replace if necessary) my watch at no cost to me. She said it was a one-time exception,” Harris said.

When I asked readers about their Apple Watch experiences, I found that Holly Harris was not alone in dealing with a watch face that came off, often violently.

Some people received free repairs under warranty. Others did not. Apple Canada did not respond to my requests for comments.

Matt Caron recently told me about his problematic purchase.

“The same thing happened to me. I was walking, heard a pop, looked at my watch and saw it was cracked around the perimeter of the screen,” he said.

He bought his Apple Watch, Series 3, on July 16, 2018, at Best Buy, along with a three-year Geek Squad warranty for $90. The sales representative said it was like Apple Care, but better.

The crack occurred one year and three days later (July 19, 2019). Both Best Buy and Apple blamed him for causing damage to the watch and said he didn’t qualify for an Apple screen replacement program.

Here’s his update, as of Sept. 16:

“I received a full refund for the warranty after saying that when I tried to use the warranty I paid for, Best Buy denied my claim. They still were not willing to repair the watch.

“I was informed today by Apple that my watch had come back from the depot, but was not repaired. I will pick it up tomorrow from the Apple Store in the Eaton Centre.

“I appreciate your support. Even if nothing happens, writing about my experience has been very helpful as I go through this process.”

If anything changes after Apple and Best Buy review this complaint, I will let you know.

You can find more information on this story and a link to Apple’s screen replacement program at my public Facebook page, where I  posted comments from users last December.

I’m back!

I haven’t written anything here for a couple of years. I thought my blogging days were behind me.

But now that I’m no longer writing for the Toronto Star, I want to continue trying to resolve your consumer disputes and addressing your questions and concerns.

Here are complaints I like to handle:

  • Problems with large well-known Canadian companies.

These include telecom and technology providers, financial institutions, airlines, travel agencies, appliance manufacturers and retail chains.

  • Problems that affect a large group of people, not one person.

I’m looking for systemic issues with large companies. That’s where a consumer advocacy journalist can get traction.

Here are complaints I don’t like to handle:

  • Landlord-tenant issues.
  • Workplace issues.
  • Health care issues.
  • Complaints about the Canada Revenue Agency.
  • Home builder and home renovation problems.
  • Car dealer sales and car repairs.

You can write to me through my website and I’ll do my best to write back, even if I can’t help you.

I plan to update this blog at least once a week and share the posts on my social media channels.

So, let’s get started!

Do you want to pick stocks?

As a result of new securities rules, you should be receiving annual statements from your investment advisers, showing how much you paid in dollars and cents for advice in 2016. It’s been called The Great Reveal.

Advisory fees can take a big chunk out of your retirement savings over the years. Is the service you get worth the cost? Are your investments growing quickly?

I like the idea of using passively managed index funds to get exposure to a wide variety of securities. They cost a fraction of what you pay for actively managed mutual funds.

Once you diversify your holdings with low-cost index funds, you can use some of your savings to buy stocks.

Is stock picking difficult? Do you need an MBA or undergraduate business degree to do it? No way.

I believe average people can succeed by reading a few books and newsletters, setting up a do-it-yourself brokerage account and using trial and error to develop their skills.

As someone who has managed my own investments for years, I hope to teach others how to do it. My online course at the University of Toronto starts March 1 and has six weeks of lessons.

Here’s a video where I describe the course, Called How to Value Companies & Pick the Right Stocks.

Please consider attending (the cost is $250) and spreading the word. I hope to see you online.

Why I started an Air Miles petition

Many large companies treat consumers badly. I pick up new examples every day.

But LoyaltyOne, parent company of the Air Miles program, crossed the line. That’s why I started a petition campaign at Change.org.

Please read and sign, using the link above, and share with others. We have already reached more than 1,000 signatures. Momentum is building on social media.

I blame LoyaltyOne for creating a five-year expiry date for Air Miles points and failing to communicate to members as the deadline draws near (Dec. 31, 2016).

Why didn’t it keep in touch? The company said members should have known about and remembered the announcement of five years earlier. Bad faith!

I also blame LoyaltyOne for poor communication when introducing a cash rewards category in 2012. Members had to opt in to get get cash rewards. Many people said they knew nothing about it.

Finally, I blame LoyaltyOne for devaluing the existing dream rewards category. Members complain about lack of choice and inability to use their expiring points.

The company said Air Miles collectors can enter a sweepstakes. Is that the best it can do?

Please let me know what you think. Even this trade magazine blamed LoyaltyOne for poor communication. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the best and simplest ways to begin rebuilding trust would be through a public apology. Since the program changes were announced, Air Miles has been quiet, letting the customer complaints pile up.

By acknowledging and owning their customers’ dissatisfaction, Air Miles could help re-establish their brand as one that understands and appreciates their customers.

An obvious fix would be to ‘make things right’ and exceed customers’ expectations with some kind of corrective action. This could be removing the policy, extending it or something similar.

My course, Investing for Beginners

Are you fed up with low interest rates? Want to learn how the stock market works, where to find reliable investment advice and what is required to trade stocks on your own?

Check out the popular investing course I’ve taught for the past decade at the University of Toronto’s school of continuing studies.

Classroom sessions start Sept. 8, from 7-9 pm, at Sidney Smith Hall (St. George St.) and run weekly to Nov. 3. There are no textbooks to buy or exams to write. The cost is $370 for nine weeks or about $40 per class.

My goal is to help you understand stocks, bonds, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, RRSPs and TFSAs. without bias, jargon or bafflegab. I also try to protect you from slick sales pitches, pitfalls and scams.

To sign up for Investing for Beginners, call 416-978-2400 or write to learn@utoronto.ca.

MoneyShow Toronto: I’m speaking Saturday, Sept. 17, 2.45-3.30 p.m., at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where you can hear 50 investment speakers during a two-day period.

My topic: Investing for dividends or growth. Which strategy is better? Thanks to Canadian MoneySaver magazine for sponsoring my free talk.

Lawn care services can lead you down garden path

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

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.