Happy holidays to my readers

Now that I have a blog at Moneyville, I’m not writing here as often as before. But I’m committed to keeping this one going.

You may have noticed it’s been going down a lot. The traffic was crashing my outdated virtual private server.

I’m happy to say I’ve switched to a new hosting service, which should be more reliable. Just in time, too.

Last Monday, I found all the comments (close to 8,000) had disappeared. Imagine losing that collective wisdom from readers. Luckily, they were recovered in a few hours.

This was a terrific year for news at the blog. In January, I talked about Rogers raising prices on home phone service and cutting internet limits for subscribers.

Some of the comments explored a question that came up in April as well: If companies record your phone conversations, do you have a right to tape them yourself?

In May, I heard that MBNA was raising minimum payments for credit card customers who had been promised low rates indefinitely. Many saw this as a breach of contract, since they would lose the low rate if they couldn’t come up with the minimum payments. The conversation has attracted more than 120 comments, both pro and con, and still rages on.

In June, the Canada Revenue Agency started charging penalties to people who had taken money out of a tax-free savings account and replaced it in the same year. I felt the rules hadn’t been explained clearly enough. Many readers disagreed with me, saying they had no sympathy with those who owed as much as $1,250 in taxes.

Luckily, Ottawa backed down on its demands for payment in the first year.

In July, Ontario imposed a disastrous regime of environmental fees on household products. Canadian Tire started charging customers — and often overcharging them — without advance notice.

Again, thanks to the publicity created here and elsewhere, the government backed off. Unfortunately, eco fees (or taxes, as they should be called) still remain on electronic products, tires and paint.

That same month, Enbridge Gas bungled its budget billing plan, sending big bills to customers who weren’t expecting them in the summer. More than 60 people wrote comments here.

I continue to get complaints about Enbridge and Direct Energy, both of which upgraded their billing systems at the same time and lost track of some accounts for a number of months.

In September, I wrote about how hard it is for some people to exercise their legal right to check their credit reports for free at Canada’s two credit bureaus. The issue lingers on, awaiting stronger rules that would establish a single source for ordering credit reports (as in the United States).

In October, I talked about the frustration many readers feel when trying to call Rogers Communications. Since then, my Rogers contacts have kept in close touch with me to make sure that readers’ problems are resolved. They also tell me that call waiting times are going down. Do you agree?

Another hot topic that month, as furnaces were being inspected and some were being tagged for repairs, was the cracked heat exchanger scam. Surely, not every furnace that gets this diagnosis really deserves it.

In November, I started looking more closely at Canada’s consumer movement. It’s down, but is it out? Can it be revived? What would it take to restore the balance in the marketplace between big businesses and busy, overstressed, time-starved consumers?

Check out my speech about consumer activism to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s annual dinner here. It’s a subject I’ll return to in the upcoming year.

Hope you take time off during the holidays and usher in 2011 in style. Thank you for visiting, reading and posting. Please come again. Your comments are always welcome.

Welcome to my new website

Hope you like the changes. After three years, it was time to update and refresh the design. I’ve added a blog, which allows a true exchange of views between me and my readers and allows readers to talk to each other.

Feel free to post comments about my columns or about anything you think is newsworthy (within the mandate of straight talk on personal finance and consumer issues). But don’t break the libel laws or your comments will be removed.

While the old message board is gone, I still have copies of all the message board items. So, if you want to refer to something there, please let me know.

I’ve started off with postings about women and money, annoying mail-in rebates, Bell blues and bank service charges (including ATM fees). Check the readers’ comments for the last two topics. They’re interesting and heartfelt — and they keep rolling in.

Please enjoy reading and contributing your views. This should be great fun.

Mail-in rebates have got to go

You’re choosing between two products at a consumer electronics store. One has a mail-in rebate that reduces the price by $50. The other has no mail-in rebate. What do you buy?

Most shoppers pick the lower-priced product. In fact, stores like to advertise the price after deducting the $50 discount. But there’s a problem with mail-in rebates: They often go astray.

That’s why Canada’s largest electronics retailer says it’s eliminating mail-in rebates. Instead, consumers will get rebates instantly at the cash register at the time of sale, much like any other price discount.

The move is to be announced next week by Best Buy Canada Inc., which operates the Best Buy chain as well as Future Shop stores. Two years ago, Best Buy promised to work with suppliers to phase out mail-in rebates because of consumer complaints.

Here’s why mail-in rebates can be frustrating. You spend time gathering the paperwork and sending in your application, only to find the cheque is not in the mail. You spend more time tracking down the rebate, only to find you forgot to include something or the deadline for redemption has passed.

Many customers don’t even bother to send in their rebate applications. Half of all rebates are never claimed, retailers say. The higher the discount relative to the product price, the more likely you are to spend time trying to get it.

What if other stores follow Best Buy and adopt instant cash rebates? Manufacturers say there will be more people getting the discounts. This means the discounts will go down. Instead of a $50 mail-in rebate, they will offer a $25 instant cash rebate.

However, Best Buy says consumers can expect to see prices remain low because the electronics industry is so competitive. It’s more likely that retailers and manufacturers will take a hit on their bottom line to get rid of this promotional tactic.

I think mail-in rebates have got to go. I prefer price discounts that everyone can get at the time of sale. So does Wal-Mart, which is becoming a big force in consumer electronics and uses an everyday low prices approach.

Say good-bye to pie in the sky and say hello to cash in the hand right away.

Bell Blues

Since I get many complaints about Bell Canada’s ineptness in dealing with customers, I did a recent column (March 24) asking readers whether Bell’s service was improving. The floodgates opened with complaints. I also heard from long-time employees who don’t like how Bell is evolving and who learned this week their retirement benefits were to be cut back. A demoralized work force can’t deliver great results.

Some common themes emerged:

* Bell needs an ombudsman or a central point of contact for complaints.

* It’s very hard to speak to a supervisor or get the names of anyone in authority. When Bell gives out phone numbers and email addresses for complaints, these often don’t work.

* Many customers can’t communicate well with outsourced Indian call centres. The people at the other end of the line have strong accents and don’t understand Canadian conditions or climate (often telling customers to go out on the roof in winter to check a satellite dish connection). Their technical knowledge is shallow, so they keep you waiting on the line while seeking answers to questions.

* Some call centre staff staff are courteous and patient, while others have an attitude of arrogance, insensitivity to customers’ time constraints and often just plain rudeness. Bell trains employees to talk about how much they care for customers, but the caring often falls apart in the face of strict rules that can’t be broken and an inability to resolve longstanding problems.

Bell vs Rogers

Bell logo
Is Bell’s service worse than Rogers? Some readers think they’re the same: bureaucratic, prone to mistakes, inconsistent and quick to send accounts for collection. Both use voice recognition systems that people dislike.

But there are a few differences. Bell outsources many calls to India, while Rogers uses Canadian call centres.

Bell’s home phone business is regulated by the CRTC, while Rogers’ home phone business is not. So, there’s a mandatory $55 installation charges for Bell clients when they move, but not for Rogers clients.

Rogers is distrusted because of the negative option plan for cable TV channels it tried to impose back in the mid-1990s. But Rogers learned from that experience and tried harder.

Bell earned customers’ trust when it was a monopoly, but in the face of competition it’s aggressively cutting costs and lowering the quality of service. So people who still admire the company are shocked when they run into mediocre and insensitive treatment from employees.

Banks hitting you with more fees

The Canadian Bankers Association defends high service charges. But many readers don’t. They loved my columns about bank fees and credit card fees, but some had strong feelings about customers who don’t pay attention to fees or don’t do their best to minimize them. What do you think? Are banks taking advantage of us? Or are we being complacent?

Wills for poor people

After a Sunday series that focused on family fights about money, I got many comments and questions about writing a will. Here’s a letter from a reader about his dad’s will:

I have enjoyed reading your columns in the Star for years. As an accountant I think of myself as fairly financially savvy but I often learn new things through it.

In reading the Jan. 28 column, it strikes me that one situation that I have seen very little written about or discussed is the death of poor people. I guess this is particularly true because of my own involvement in such a situation.

My father passed away in September of 2003. He was 78 and lived alone on CPP, OAS and GIS. When he died, he lived in a cramped one-room apartment with less than $1,000 in his bank account and no other assets and just a small amount of credit card debt. I am one of seven surviving sons or daughters (two from a previous marriage that I have never met), and my mother predeceased him, so that made the seven of us his “next of kin”. He died with no will.

I found dealing with all the complications frustrating and complex. With no will, there is no executor, so it was hard to cancel things (phone, cable, credit cards, etc.). I did look into the Ontario Public Guardian’s office, but the paperwork and cost (more than his estate!) were simply way too involved to contemplate. And the thought of the complications I would have to go through in terms of searching for survivors also put me off.

In terms of his income taxes and estate return — again, legally, one must be the executor to complete — so in the end none of these forms were completed. (I have no idea what I will say to CRA if they ever come knocking about this.)

Luckily, my brother knew the bank manager at our Dad’s bank so we were able to close the account. Up to a year later I was still getting mail from places like Rogers about his account. I got tired of telling them he was dead, so I simply threw away the mail.