Three years and 250 blog posts later

I love to celebrate anniversaries. I do so today with some questions I’d like you to answer.

Is life better for consumers than it was three years ago? Is it easier to communicate with large retailers and manufacturers? Is there more protection when it comes to overcharging, product quality and safety, and safeguarding of your legal rights?

Is life better for retail investors? Is the client-adviser relationship changing after the market collapse of 2008-09? Is the average person ready to leave high-cost mutual funds with bundled advice and embrace low-cost options and do-it-yourself investing?

Finally, is the Internet making a difference for consumers and investors? Is it allowing more effective communication with companies? Is it easier to connect with other in the same situation you are by using the Internet?

Let me say that, in my opinion, things have gotten worse for consumers who want to resolve problems on their own, without going to court or to the media.

Things are no better or investors, who are forced to put money away for the future and hope it will last, without getting the information needed to make good decisions or challenge the hidden conflicts of interest that distort the advice they’re given.

As for the Internet, I’m impressed with the way it allows us to talk to each other and learn from each other. But I don’t see ordinary people taking concrete action together and becoming agents of change, especially in Canada with its weak tradition of activism.

I’m also impressed with how easy it is to communicate by email, even with large companies and their CEOs. If you don’t believe it, check out this article about Steve Jobs of Apple, who does answer emails (at least sometimes, if only to send a single-word reply.)

Finally, I liked this blog post about the problems that newspapers are facing in trying to engage the public with online comments. Author Jeff Jarvis thinks the negativity reflects the fact readers aren’t asked to comment earlier in the process.

That’s what I try to do with this blog, engage my readers. I cherish the responses I get here — and trust me when I say they inform the work I do at the Toronto Star every day.

Future Shop’s pricing error leads to reforms

Customers often run into pricing errors when buying items online — and when they say they want the original price, they get nowhere.

This happened to Tad Klupsas, who’s legally blind, so he filed a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission against Future Shop. His story interested me enough to write about it earlier this month.

Now Future Shop has investigated and made some changes to help both disabled customers and everyone who wants their complaints escalated in a timely and appropriate way.

Shannon Kidd, a media contact for Future Shop and Best Buy, welcomes complaints from customers as a signal of what’s wrong and what needs to change. She and her team deserve credit for taking hold of this controversy and trying to learn from it.

Check out what she says below.

The extended warranty racket

I hate it when stores push extended warranties on everything they sell. Appliances and electronics should last longer than the basic one-warranty that manufacturers provide. And if they fall apart after the purchase, consumers shouldn’t have to pay to replace them.

The Ontario sale of goods act says consumers have a right to expect reasonable quality in the merchandise they buy. This implied warranty can’t be nullified in a contract. So, how can companies argue there’s no coverage of defects after a limited time period?

Check out Bill’s story below. His HP laptop computer stopped working 22 months after purchase, but he had no extended warranty. The manufacturer finally agreed to replace it, but only when I asked the retailer for help.

Today’s low, low interest rates

Hard to believe you’re making zero on deposits at many banks and investment dealers. Here’s an example featuring TD Canada Trust, always at the bottom of the list when it comes to savings rates.

A reader told me that his 92-year-old mother bought a “money market GIC” from TD Mortgage Corp. in June 2008. It was renewed automatically a year later at an astonishing rate of interest — 0.0010%.

An ex-banker, he’s never heard of a rate this low. His comment:

One thousandth of one per cent per annum… My initial reaction was that it must be a computer error, despite the fact that returns on savings are very low right now.

In fact, the actual interest to be paid at maturity would be 19 cents… on a deposit of $18,000 for a year.

Perhaps the Guiness Book of World Records might find it worth a mention.

Money market funds are also giving zero returns, in most cases, according to a new report by FAIR Canada. And they would be giving less than zero (negative returns) if managers were not absorbing fees to avoid this outcome.

I’m on FAIR’s board and know its goal is to improve investor protection. In this case, it recommends:

— Investors should be notified when the return on a “safe” investment turns negative and when fees are being cut. The current requirements — one-time disclosure of fees in the simplified prospectus and semi-annual reports on total fees paid by the funds — are not prominent enough to serve investors properly.

— Advisors should consider switching clients to higher-yielding alternatives, such as premium savings accounts.

— Investors should stay current and well-informed about their accounts and alternatives and not just rely on their advisers.

In my own experience, I earned negative returns with a CIBC bonus savings account that paid 0.1% on daily closing balances up to $2,999.99 and 0.7% on $3,000+. Since each transaction cost $5, I was soon in negative territory. Today I have no savings account and make automatic transfers from my chequing account to my line of credit, which I use to handle large bills.

So, where do you keep your money for short-term gains and little risk? Please share your ideas for what to do in a low-rate climate that may persist for a while longer.

Win some, lose some

Some problems are hard to resolve. No-name movers that exceed their estimates and hold your stuff ransom drive me crazy. So do home renovators who demand payment in full and don’t finish the work or do it poorly.

Another area where I rarely get results is roofing. Shingle manufacturers offer 25-year warranties that mean nothing if they deny claims or pay a pittance in compensation. Check this Busted segment of CBC Marketplace and Con Borg’s complaint below.

I’m also frustrated to hear about investment salespeople who fill out documents characterizing you as a high risk investor when you’re not, only to make their poor choices stand up in court. Read Mark’s comment, which I’ve posted as well.

Still, I can turn around many complaints in a jiffy when I connect companies with unsatfisfied customers. I call them one-day miracles and I’m finding they’re more frequent, maybe because of this blog.

In that category, check out Ken’s complaint about Petro-Canada’s restrictive rain guarantee for car washes. I helped him make a deal, despite the denial of his claim at the beginning.

Dealing with the Canada Revenue Agency

Here are two stories that show how important it is to know how much tax you owe and pay the right amount. If you don’t, the government can hit you with heavy penalties.

In the first case, a woman sent a cheque for what she thought she owed. The Canada Revenue Agency didn’t cash her cheque and sent her a big refund in error. Many months later, it demanded repayment, plus interest, even though it had made the mistake.

In the second case, a woman moved around so much that the tax department’s letters went astray. Eventually, she got a request to pay a large amount. She said she would pay in instalments, but after the first cheque was sent, she found her bank account had been drained.

Check out the details below, the kind of cautionary tales that remind you never to get on the wrong side of the CRA.

Banks are not your friend

Never forget that the big banks are in business to make money for their shareholders. Serving customers is always going to be a lower priority than boosting the bottom line, despite what their ads say.

No matter what kind of help you seek from a bank, you can be tricked and deceived if you start with the idea that the bank is your friend. It’s not on your side. The overriding goal is to make profits for shareholders.

Canadians trust the banks too much. We think we will get objective help, not tainted by bias or financial incentives. That’s far from the case.

For example, banks push you to buy expensive insurance that covers minimum payments on your credit card if you’re sick or injured. They may enroll you in a plan without authorization when you get a credit card, then put the onus on you to opt out.

When you take out a mortgage, banks often link their life insurance to the application. They don’t tell you that life insurance is optional and is available at much better terms outside the bank.

And why are banks always keen to extend credit so you can contribute to an RRSP or catch up on previous RRSP contributions? If they had your best interests at heart, wouldn’t they tell you that the best investment is to cut down your debt, especially in the early years of a mortgage when interest costs are highest?

Last year, I got more complaints about banks than in the previous five years. They came from people surprised to find the base rate on their lines of credit going up at a time when the Bank of Canada rate was coming down — and from those shocked at the size of their penalties when they renegotiated a mortgage.

Check the complaint from Sarah below, who renewed her mortgage when the bank approached her and had no idea that she’d be zapped with a huge fee. The friendly banker never mentioned it. In fact, she was assured that she could do this transaction without any consequences.

Is Bell’s customer service getting better?

That’s what the company wants you to believe. It’s put together a slick campaign online to show it’s committed to better service.

I like the extended call centre hours. Finally! What took so long? And I like the testimonials. But why do they come only from Bell employees? Where are the customers?

Bell talks about having 11,000 representatives right here. It’s trying to fight the perception that your calls always go overseas. But is it moving away from foreign call centres? Apparently so, according to Bell spokeswoman Julie Smithers. (See her response below.)

Let’s not forget Bad Bell. CBC Marketplace last night announced it was the winner of a contest for Canada’s Worst Cellphone Bill.

Julie Smithers tried to smooth things over by refunding all the charges. But host Wendy Mesley asked, as I do all the time, what about the customers who don’t have the power of the media behind them?

So, here’s my question to Bell customers: Are things improving? How are you doing with technical support, hidden charges, billing errors and unwritten contracts? And when you call or email the company, are you getting quicker, better service?

Investmentitos, anyone?

I did a column yesterday about those in-your-face bank commercials and why they’re getting so weird.

You know, the two grumpy old men (TD Canada Trust) and the dysfunctional couples (Scotiabank). I couldn’t find the real Scotiabank ad on YouTube, so I’ve linked to a parody.

But there’s one I missed that’s pretty offensive, BMO and the worry doll. A reader mentioned it and I think it’s a mystery why any advertising exec approved it.

Here are some nasty comments I found online about these North Americans griping about their “investmentitos” while shopping at a third world market:

I hate this commercial. Spoilt first world people with enough money to invest (and travel) condescending to the local vendor (who probably lives on a few dollars a week) about their mucho grande worries. The female tourist is particularly obnoxious.

Because, y’know, us white North Americans have bigger worries than these 3rd world, rural peasants even with their contaminated water supplies, their drought-ridden farms, their starving children… our worries are still so much more… important.

This couple can afford to travel abroad, have “investmentitos” and they are complaining to some 90 year old woman who is trying to feed herself by selling stupid dolls to foreigners about their money issues. Doesn’t BMO think this is a bit insensitive?

Okay, the first time I saw this funny-looking blonde woman trying to translate investments as “investmentitos” and matching market fluctuations to the tone of her voice – “sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down,” – I kinda chuckled. But after the tenth time it was just annoying. Hm, maybe if I yell louder and put an O on the end of my words she’ll understand me.

On the plus side, Ally Bank is doing great ads with its use of humour and kids. My husband laughs every time he sees this commercial, every single time.

So, what do you think of the ads by BMO, Ally, TD and Scotia? Any other financial ads you like or dislike?

Back to work, helping people get refunds

After a week in the Mexican sun, I’m back connecting customers to corporations, trying to open lines of communication and relieve frustration.

Two days later, I have a bunch of victories to report. You’ll find stories posted below about a 12-year-old boy’s savings at TD Canada Trust, a new mother’s concern about nursery furniture bought at Stork Craft and a student’s battle with defective hinges on an HP laptop computer.

I’m not alone in this fight. Last July, musician Dave Carroll released a video, United Breaks Guitars, that went viral on YouTube. When denied compensation because he didn’t file his claim within a 24-hour period, he decided to write and record a bluegrass lament about how badly customers are treated.

The airline finally did agree to pay for repairs, but only in response to negative publicity. Carroll nixed the offer and recorded two more videos.

The latest, released tonight, thanks United for helping to relaunch his career. He knows that the 9 million YouTube views of his videos were worth much more than the $1,200 he put out to fix his Taylor guitar.

Along the way, he’s done media interviews and he’s been adopted by business schools as a case study in poor customer service. Well done, Dave.

Here’s his final comment as he touches down on the landing strip:

I had hoped that creating these videos might make a big corporation rethink how they think of each and every customer, but could never have imagined the potential hidden inside a music video and a few social media tools.

Corporations of all kinds around the world now feel compelled, in part because of United Breaks Guitars, to build in a better model for customer care into their businesses. I’m proud to have been a part of it but the real credit goes to the millions of people around the world who took the time to laugh and tell a friend.