Should stores charge a restocking fee?

Ten years ago, I did a series of columns on Future Shop’s unfriendly customer service policies. They had a 15-day return period and a 15 per cent restocking fee if you bought computers or accessories, camcorders or large-screen TV sets and returned them within the 15-day return period.

Future Shop soon revamped its policies, extending the return period to 30 days and socking the restocking fee. The Canadian-owned was trying to fend off a U.S. takeover, which happened anyway when Best Buy swallowed it up. But the customer service policies remained the same.

Now I’m seeing restocking fees used by other retailers. I believe these fees should be disclosed before you buy. Stores should post prominent signs on walls and at counters, so you know your return privileges are restricted.

Here are some stories about restocking fees below. I hope you’re going to ask questions when shopping, rather than being surprised when you’re expecting a full refund.

As for Future Shop/Best Buy, I still get complaints. (Many come from Red Flag Deals, where my name gets tossed around in discussion forums.) The company responds quickly to my requests and follows up to make sure customers are happy. Managers welcome complaints, knowing they can use the information to improve their business practices.

My personal blog challenge

It’s my goal to write more often. I’ll try posting every two days for a while.

Wish me luck in stepping up the pace.

Why do it?

— I want you to find more fresh content when you drop by.

— I want to share the interesting and thought-provoking emails I get from Star readers.

— I want you to enjoy these stories and provide your own views of the topics in question.

This blog has an average 2,216 visits a day and 11,747 daily hits — up from 1,365 visits and 6,869 hits a day a year ago. It’s nice to see the growth.

There’s lots to read here already, but now you’ll find more new stuff on the home page.

So, let’s get started. Check the stories below about an eyeglass scam, a failed experiment in buying foreclosed U.S. real estate and a travel insurance fiasco.

Making allowances for irresponsible decisions

As a consumer advocate, I’m always troubled to hear about cases where people make errors in judgment. Do I help them? Or do I tell them to learn from their mistakes?

Here are a few complaints I received this week and the judgment calls I made about following up or not.

Maintenance not done on car.

“I bought a new van in 2008. After 49,000 kms, the engine goes. They claim that oil was the problem. I admit that it was not changed as often as should have been, but feel they should honour their warranty. They refused and I had to put a used engine in at a cost of $4,450.”

Airline tickets cancelled because of illness.

“My husband, son and I planned to take our first ever trip to Europe during the Christmas holidays. On Dec. 16, my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, requiring immediate surgery. We had to cancel. I heard that a lot of airlines provide refunds in cases of serious illness. My airline showed a complete lack of concern and said the tickets cannot be refunded.”

Frequent flyer points forfeited.

“Recently I went online to check the status of my Aeroplan points and learned that all my 61,000 points had been revoked. I was told that an email was sent to me saying my points would be lost if I did not make use of my Aeroplan card. I received no such email ! Since when is email 100% reliable? The only way to reinstate the points was to pay a $20 fee PLUS 1 cent per point ($350!!). Again, not fair.”

My response to all three cases: Look elsewhere for help.

The first reader should know that routine maintenance is required for cars, especially regular oil changes. Manufacturers’ warranties say that they can reject claims if you avoid regular trips to the garage. (You don’t have to use their dealers, but you do have to keep your bills.)

The second reader should know that travel insurance is designed to help in cases of sudden illness. No matter how young you are, you can get sick and have to stay home. Airlines may offer refunds, but they don’t have to. I wouldn’t count on goodwill gestures from companies if you didn’t get insurance that was readily available.

The third reader should know that Aeroplan has been zapping points for inactivity since 2004. The policy enhanced its appeal to investors when it was listed as a public company. You can find warnings at the website on keeping your account active. I’ve helped hundreds of members reinstate their points, but now find Aeroplan insists on buy-back fees. So, stay active. Use your card to buy groceries or gas.

Finally, I’m feeling conflicted about the many complaints I get about energy retailers. Yes, their salespeople lie all the time. But why do people believe what they’re told? Why don’t they read the contract and cancel? Why do they say yes when the company calls to confirm they know what they’re doing?

Buyer’s remorse is common. Customers want to save money if prices go up, but don’t want to suffer if prices go down. It’s a gamble and they lost.

Still, I handle complaints for those who are older, living on low income, new to Canada or new to homeownership. I also work with people who insist the salesperson deceived them. So, there aren’t many I turn down.

The sooner Ontario gets new laws in place to rein in these rapacious sellers, the better.

When a company’s reply makes no sense

What’s with the dumb replies you get when sending emails to big companies? Assuming you get a reply at all, you often find it’s badly written or doesn’t address the points you made.

Worst of all are the responses that use exaggerated rhetoric about customer service being a priority and then contradict themselves by repeating the rigid company policies that forced you to write in the first place. Sound familiar?

I asked readers for examples of nonsense replies in my column last week, which quoted one from Future Shop. I got a few familar names (Rogers, Bell) and a few surprises. I’ll post a few of the best ones and welcome more examples from blog readers.

Personal finance for beginners

I’ve written before about the course I gave in 2008 at George Brown College. It’s designed for 20-to-35-year-olds and deals with smart money management.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada and the Investor Education Fund are sponsoring the course, which they hope to expand across the country.

You can find a full-page ad for the upcoming sessions in Now magazine’s current issue, page 9, with the headline, “Face debt head-on.”

After doing this course three times, we sat down to rethink how it was delivered. We came up with some ideas on how to make it better.

Keep it short. Last time, I taught three Saturdays in a row, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. It was a big commitment for participants. This time, I’m doing it in a single day, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30, and Sunday, Feb. 7.

Charge for it. Last time, it was free because it was sponsored by the two government agencies. Some people signed up and didn’t show up. This time, there will be a nominal $25 fee.

Give handouts. Last time, I gave out hard copies of my PowerPoint presentations. That helped, but didn’t go far enough. This time, everyone will get a book with supplementary readings, created by a team of professional writers.

Focus on debt. Last time, I talked about spending, saving and investing. This time, I’m talking less about investing and more about cutting costs, reducing debt and fighting fraud. That’s a result of feedback received from students in previous classes.

Though aimed at young people, the course attracted many people in their 40s and 50s. Some felt they hadn’t saved enough and needed help with basics. A few were great money managers, keen to hear a few extra tips they might not know.

I’ve put a link on the right side of this page under Navigation. Please spread the word to anyone who might be interested.

On mortgage penalties, WestJet’s woes and international roaming charges

These are all controversial topics I’ve covered recently in my CBC radio commentaries. Check the link on this page under Navigation.

Sometimes, I use complaints from readers to illustrate my points. I did so this week with the story of a couple, Helen and Don, who were stuck with an $11,000 mortgage penalty when they sold their house. They wanted the lender, FirstLine (owned by CIBC), to cut them some slack because they planned to take a bigger mortgage on a new house in June. Luckily, CIBC agreed. You can read all about it below.

WestJet has been in the spotlight because of a computer reservation system upgrade that didn’t fly straight. I was getting a few complaints from Star readers, and later started hearing from CBC readers, but the most anguished response came from the airline’s communications contact. You’ll find his comment below, along with others.

Finally, if you’re tempted to travel overseas with your digital device, pay attention to David McVay. He took his BlackBerry with him on a Baltic cruise and came home to find ridiculously high data roaming charges. My CBC commentary talked about his complaint, but didn’t mention the result. Bell worked with him to reduce the bill by half.

See McVay’s advice below on avoiding the pain when you travel, plus advice for wireless carriers on how to shape up or ship out.