My 200th blog post

August 31 2009 by Ellen Roseman

Since I wrote about reaching 100 , I want to celebrate getting to 200 blog posts today, before September arrives.

I wish I had time to write more often. But after doing three Star columns a week, teaching continuing education classes at U of T and George Brown College, making speeches and responding to readers’ emails, I’m “knackered.” (Great word, eh? Here’s a definition. Don’t you love Wikipedia?)

I just saw the movie Julie and Julia and felt a kinship with blogger Julie Powell. Not that I expect to pull off a book deal and film starring Meryl Streep as she did, but I recognized the scene where her husband fumed at losing her attention while she was on her computer communicating with strangers. That’s a familar argument at our home.

So, let me say again that blogging has its rewards (as well as challenges). There’s a community of readers here, who love to share their likes and dislikes, tips, contacts and philosophy of money and consumerism. They find comfort in reading about others who had the same problems they did and successfully resolved them.

Long may they continue to connect with each other and learn through common experiences.

In the near future, I hope to post reader feedback about Dell (one of the first to outsource customer service overseas) and to keep exposing the water heater replacement racket. And I’m wondering about the Harper government’s enthusiastic response to Montreal activists asking for tougher laws on rogue advisers. Would this have something to do with Quebec’s reluctance to endorse a national financial regulator?

So, keep those comments and story suggestions coming. I’ll try to cook up more controversy in the days to come.

Who pays for local programming on TV?

August 24 2009 by Ellen Roseman

TV stations should pay for local programming, since they have the advertising revenue to support it. But they’re crying poor and saying that costs should be subsidized by cable TV and satellite TV operators.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission agreed and told the cable and satellite companies to set up a local programming improvement fund (LPIF). But it didn’t tell them they had to absorb the cost.

Result: Consumers pay the bill. The carriers just downloaded it onto us.

Many customers of Rogers Cable wrote to me after receiving letters about the new charge. But Bell is also asking customers to pay without even advance notice by mail. Instead, it has a notice at its website.

You have to wonder about a government agency that imposes a sizeable charge — and increases it at the last minute before it takes effect on Sept. 1 — and acts surprised when it’s passed along to customers. The outcome was predictable. So why not do something to head it off?

If you write to the CRTC, this is a typical answer you receive:

The CRTC established a Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) to conserve and improve local television programming. In establishing the appropriate level of contributions to be paid by cable/satellite companies to broadcast local programming, the CRTC considered a number of factors including the ability by cable/satellite companies to contribute to the Canadian broadcasting system.

Given their reported profits, the CRTC is of the view that there is no justification to pass the cost on to consumers. If your cable/satellite company has decided to increase the fees for your service, it is a business decision that is not regulated or mandated by the CRTC.

Let’s not get carried away by our distaste for Rogers and Bell. Let’s also lay the blame where it belongs on the CRTC, which didn’t do its regulatory duty.

And let’s not forget CTV, which overpaid for broadcast rights to the Vancouver Olympics. With its ad revenues shrinking, it then had to orchestrate a campaign to transfer local programming costs to Canada’s cable and satellite companies.

What’s bugging you? Part two

August 9 2009 by Ellen Roseman

I wish I heard more compliments about the way large companies treated their customers. But the rants outnumber the raves a hundredfold.

There’s a reason why people tell me about their bad experiences (you can check my earlier post as well). They learn valuable lessons when things go wrong and they want to pass on the information to others, so they can be forewarned and forearmed.

So, here are recent horror stories from readers about a travel insurance claim denied, a badly designed cellphone and an airline flight missed with no compensation. Feel free to add your own tales of woe.

Innovative online bank shuts down

August 7 2009 by Ellen Roseman

Citizens Bank got lots of press when it opened in 1997. It was the first and only Canadian financial institution with a female CEO, Linda Crompton (who didn’t stay long). It also promised to bring a social conscience to all its operations.

But parent Vancity’s press release this week wasn’t as forthright as it should have been about the fate of Citizens Bank. The news was downplayed that customers were being left in the lurch.

Online banking has “become a crowded marketplace,” said Vancity CEO Tamara Vrooman. So, customers outside Vancouver will have to transfer their chequing and savings accounts to another institution. RRSPs will have to be transferred. Term deposits not in RRSPs can stay until they mature, but can’t be renewed.

The loan portfolio is being sold to TD Canada Trust, with customers’ lines of credit and mortgages being moved early next year. Some are asking if they’ll be penalized if they want to switch from TD to a bank of their choice.

Vrooman’s use of business speak is offputting. She says the decision continues Vancity’s transformation as a true B.C. success story. But where’s her apology for the inconvenience to the customers outside B.C., who were lured into opening accounts with a national bank that is no more?

Maybe the bank could have survived with a bigger budget for promotion and advertising. ING Direct and President’s Choice Financial splash their names everywhere. I was surprised to hear that low-profile Citizens has only 30,000 members, 45 per cent in B.C. and 35 per cent in Ontario.

Here’s the response I got from one member.

I’ve been with them since 2001 and am very upset they are shutting down. There are no real alternatives that match their offerings and their philosophy.

And this lament is from another member.

To say we’re angry is an understatement. They’ve been the best bank with the best rates for me since their inception. It’s unfortunate this has to happen and now that I’m shopping around for another bank, it’s astounding to see how much nickeling & diming is going on. PC Financial is the closest to CB, but still not by a long shot.

Where are minority shareholders’ rights in this deal?

August 5 2009 by Ellen Roseman

Did you ever hear of a company consolidating its shares by five million to one? Even Nortel did only a 10-to-one consolidation.

Ian Wollach bought 8,000 shares of Polyair Inter Pack Inc., a Toronto packaging firm, at $2 a share last year. Today, they’re worth 5 cents a share. His $16,000 investment has shrunk to $400.

Polyair consolidated its shares in order to to go private. Wollach thought the Ontario Securities Commission might protect minority shareholders in such a deal, which he considers a sham engineered to bypass requirements for a share valuation.

Annoyingly, Wollach didn’t get a response from the OSC until this week (the deal closed in mid-July). And he found the response next to useless.

I’m posting the letters below. Now I want to hear what you think.

Teaching young people about money

August 3 2009 by Ellen Roseman

My husband thinks Latin should still be taught in school. I think studying a dead language is helpful for a few, but learning about money management benefits everyone. So, why don’t schools integrate it into the curriculum?

Kids today are assaulted with TV ads as toddlers. They’re offered credit cards when they hit puberty. They’re easy prey for hard-sell fitness clubs and cellphone contracts in their teens. And when leaving high school, they’re burdened with student loans they may not pay off until they’re middle aged.

Parents don’t always train their kids on handling personal finances — and even if they do, kids follow the behaviour they see. Many parents are terrible role models.

I’d like to see schools take up the challenge of teaching young people not just to earn money, but to make it last. I talked about this in my Sunday column and heard lots of interesting comments from readers.