Can you trust your financial adviser?

February 26 2009 by Ellen Roseman

Financial advisers are getting no respect from clients these days. Instead, they’re getting hostility from clients whose portfolio values have crumbled.

This year, their phones are still ringing off the hook – but instead of calling to invest money, many clients are calling to complain.

That’s from a Globe and Mail story earlier this week. It attracted more than 200 online comments, many hostile.

It’s natural that people question the value of advice when they lose money. But what’s troubling some clients is the size of their losses. They feel their advisers didn’t build a portfolio that was diversified enough to withstand a bear market.

My Sunday series on investment advisers has a few more weeks to run and I’m also getting lots of online comments, plus some heartfelt letters from readers. I’ve posted some below.

Here’s a question. What do you think can be done to improve the quality of investment advice given to Canadians? What can be done to make salespeople more trustworthy?

Banks have some explaining to do

February 19 2009 by Ellen Roseman

Wow, I got a torrent of emails in response to yesterday’s column which said the banks were scoring a failing grade in communication.

At a time when Bank of Canada rate cuts are front page news, banks have to work harder to explain why they are raising rates on lines of credit. Vague talk about higher borrowing costs doesn’t make sense to most people.

Below is some of the reaction I heard, along with complaints about Rogers (which has some explaining to do about its rate increases) and Bell.

My adventures in customer service

February 17 2009 by Ellen Roseman

Always ask the companies you deal with if there’s a newer and cheaper plan than the one you have. That’s good advice.

So, how did I find myself in the position of having overpaid for my Rogers data plan?

I recently decided to upgrade my BlackBerry and went to a Rogers store with my husband (who would inherit the older model). The salesman checked my account and said I didn’t need to pay $60 a month for a data plan. Prices had come down a lot lately.

We could each pay $25 a month and still come out ahead. Sounded like a sweet deal until I found I couldn’t hook up my BlackBerry to the office network. The salesman hadn’t asked the right questions and had sold me the wrong data plan.

I called Rogers and changed my data plan. Now I would pay $45 a month for what I had before (1 GB). How long would I have kept paying $60 before being told the good news?

We’re a VIP customer household, with monthly bills that run on for 15 pages. It would be nice to be notified when prices are dropping.

I asked if there was an alternative to calling every month (and waiting on hold). Just check the Rogers website to find prices of BlackBerry data plans, I was told. Wrong again.

The website lists only individual plans, not the enterpriser server plans (such as I have). But I did find the information that Rogers can’t be bothered to list at an independent website here.

Some companies count on inertia to keep you paying more, until you finally wake up to the fact you’ve been overcharged.

I had another adventure going out for Valentine’s Day dinner at the Spice Room in Hazelton Lanes. The food was appetizing, the service amazingly bad. Several couples walked out before ordering.

Our waitress, called in at the last minute, couldn’t handle the stress. She got everything mixed up, including our bill, which belonged to another table. When she finally gave us the right bill, it was off by a factor of 10. We had been charged $1,320 instead of $132.

The owner just laughed at what went wrong. He said the waitress hadn’t worked there for six months and now we understood why. Business had been slow in the past few months and he was surprised by the Valentine’s Day crowds.

No apology or good will gesture to make us come back — and, of course, we won’t. You can find better service at places that charge a fraction of these prices.

Joanne Kates wrote about the appallingly bad service when this restaurant opened almost two years ago — and still no improvement.

Ticket selling practices under fire

February 10 2009 by Ellen Roseman

Companies usually co-operate when I send them complaints. But tracking down a contact at Ticketmaster Entertainment to get things resolved wasn’t easy, as I mentioned in my column last Saturday

Ticketmaster spokesman Albert Lopez in California has his hands full. No wonder he’s slow to respond to media calls.

Last week, rocker Bruce Springsteen complained that New Jersey concert buyers were redirected to TicketsNow, a resale site owned by Ticketmaster, when box office tickets were still available.

This week, two law firms launched a class action lawsuit, seeking $500 million in compensation for contravention of anti-scalping laws in Ontario.

And yesterday, Ticketmaster announced a merger with Live Nation, a big concert promoter that was planning to sell tickets directly to the public in competition with its former partner. Critics say they’ll fight for a review under U.S. anti-trust laws.

Mel Fruitman, vice-president of the Consumers Association of Canada, is critical of Ticketmaster’s sales practices. Tickets for the Springsteen concert in Toronto on May 7, which went on sale last Friday at noon, were gone two hours later. But he found 894 tickets available for sale above their face value at TicketsNow.com.

“I was shocked to see so many resale tickets at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, which has a capacity of 17,000,” he says. “They have to be scalpers selling them. This isn’t just a convenience for those who can’t go to the performance.”

Check out the Consumerist’s attack on Ticketmaster, “an evil monpoly that steals cash from defenseless consumers.”

Even when you buy tickets from the box office, you may pay about 30 per cent extra in surcharges. The most annoying is the convenience charge, the price you pay for printing out the tickets you bought.

CBC Marketplace ran an item on Ticketmaster last month.

We buy a couple of seats to Britney Spears’ top-selling concert tour from Ticketmaster for $65 each. We get hit with a $4.25 service charge and a “convenience fee.”

Over at TicketsNow, the reseller site that Ticketmaster owns, we find tickets in the same section but the price is 50 per cent higher. And off those second-hand Britney Spears tickets, they take 15 per cent of the resale price.

So TicketMaster, you’re busted for double dipping, making money off the same tickets, twice.

Why are banks raising rates on lines of credit?

February 7 2009 by Ellen Roseman

Interest rates have been falling, thanks to the determination of central banks around the world to stimulate their economies. So, why are some Canadian banks raising rates on lines of credit and telling us it’s because of higher borrowing costs?

BMO Bank of Montreal and TD Canada Trust are both sending out letters to notify customers of the rate increases. Some people are puzzled and some are angry. They think the banks have a whole lot more explaining to do.

CIBC is also raising rates on lines of credit, as you can see in the later comments below.

Here are some indignant reactions from customers and explanations from bankers, trying to make sense of what seeems insensible.

Who’s responsible for years of overbilling?

February 4 2009 by Ellen Roseman

You look at your latest monthly bill and find a mysterious charge that shouldn’t be there. It’s outdated or just plain wrong.

Then, you pull out older bills and discover that you have been overcharged for many years. What a juicy refund you will get.

You call the company and ask for compensation. Too bad, you’re told. You can get reimbursed for one year, maybe two years, of overbilling — certainly not five or 10 years.

Why didn’t you check your bills more often? The company says it’s your fault for not noticing if a mistake went undetected for a long time. You have to take responsibility here.

Bell Canada is notorious for overcharging and giving skimpy refunds. It has a written policy of not giving more than one year’s worth of compensation in a dispute.

Companies that sell energy door to door also shy away from giving refunds when they lock you into a contract by mistake. They think it’s enough to give you an early release. Only if you make lots of noise will they repay you for the overcharges.

I think customers should check their bills and companies should rectify their mistakes in full. Right now, they can deliberately overcharge you and wait for complaints. If they hold you off for a year or more, they’re home free.

I’m posting comments below from customers who want companies to be more accountable for billing errors.

The question of responsibility came up in my column today about a judge whose chequing account was frozen because he had run an overdraft for six months. Some readers thought I was irresponsible to champion his cause. I thought the bank should have made his obligations clear to him before clamping down so heavily.