Wireless carriers charge $2 to $4 for paper bills

July 28 2010 by Ellen Roseman

Edward Carson has a Telus Mobility account. He’s not happy that he has to pay $2, starting in September, to get paper bills delivered by mail.

Most other wireless carriers already charge for paper bills, says Jim Johannsson, director of media relations at Telus.

The paperless revolution has been slow to arrive. But it may accelerate if more companies decide to bill customers a few dollars apiece for old-fashioned hard copies.

Telus is making a one-time donation to the Nature Conservancy of Canada when customers switch to paperless. But shouldn’t it give customers an incentive, such as a discount arising from their cost savings?

Read the conversation below between Carson and Johannsson. Then, share your views.

Enbridge undercharging leads to budget-busting bills

July 25 2010 by Ellen Roseman

Utilities are not known for great customer service. Since their prices are regulated, they’re always trying to cut costs.

Enbridge, a gas utility in Ontario, gets many complaints about recurring billing errors and difficulties in getting them corrected. I talk to their executives on a regular basis.

But the temperature is soaring this month because Enbridge bungled its budget billing plan (BBP), a popular option that lets you divide your payments into equal amounts throughout the year.

As I said in a recent column, Enbridge makes adjustments each July to balance the bills. In most years, customers have a credit or only a small debit to pay in July.

This year, Enbridge set the amounts too low. It has a message here that admits to making the initial mistake and compounding it by not doing a mid-season review to make sure that customers’ bills were on track.

I find the company’s case contradictory. If the monthly BPP instalments were set last August, how did the large variances escape notice for a year? See the Q&A below:

Why did Enbridge not do a review of my plan?

Earlier this year, we did review the overall performance of the Budget Billing plan and the balances appeared to be in line for the majority of our customers at that time.

Come on, Enbridge, this explanation is full of gas. It’s your job to keep things straight for the 800,000 customers in your budget billing plan.

I’m on the BPP myself and waiting to receive my July bill. But when checking my June invoice, I saw a large deficit between gas used and gas billed under the BPP ($318.28). My monthly gas use has dropped from the previous year. If not, the gap would be even wider.

Yes, it’s true that customers can monitor the BPP on their own, using information shown on each bill. But many trusted Enbridge to get it right, as in previous years. They’ll be less trusting in the future.

I’ve been hearing cries of outrage from recipients of the budget-busting July bills. They’re also furious about waiting on hold when they call to make payment arrangements.

We’re currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes related to Budget Billing Plans. We apologize for the long waits and thank you for your patience.

If you made errors affecting hundreds of thousands of customers, then why not hire more temporary call centre staff? Why not keep the phone lines open later in the evenings and on weekends?

Enbridge has extended the weekday hours from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. That’s not enough, according to the people who are calling me in frustration.

This week, the lines stay open until 8 p.m. I called today and spent 23 minutes on hold to speak to a rep. He said my final bill isn’t ready yet, but estimated that I’d owe $236.27 in gas charges that weren’t on my monthly instalments.

A plague of extra charges added to your bills

July 23 2010 by Ellen Roseman

Added fees are getting out of control. I’m tired of seeing large companies advertise one price to lure you in and then jack it up with a multitude of extra costs.

My CBC radio commentary on this topic attracted lots of comment. I referred to a study by the Public Interest Advocacy Group, calling for new consumer laws to curb the misleading practice.

One outcome is a loss of faith among the buying public. How can you trust lowball prices that don’t reflect what you’ll pay down the road when you get the bill?

Advertised airline fares are a big offender, as are cellphone plans. Utility bills have transportation and delivery charges, customer charges and debt retirement charges added to the commodity price.

And let’s not forget the “provincial benefit” on fixed-price electricity contracts — not a benefit, but a hefty surcharge.

I’d like to see more pressure on companies to adopt all-in pricing. Upstarts in an industry can also lead to change.

New cellphone entrants offering unlimited monthly rate plans — namely, Wind Mobile, Public Mobile and Mobilicity — have pushed Rogers into launching its own copycat brand, Chatr Wireless.

When extra fees are excluded from prices, you feel surprised, shocked and abused. Your trust in sellers is gone. The integrity of the shopping experience is in tatters.

Here’s an example below of a Bell Canada customer struggling with a plague of extra charges on his bill.

Many mistakes made, leading to end of eco fees

July 20 2010 by Ellen Roseman

The Ontario government is giving in to public criticism and scrapping the latest phase of its eco fees program.

It’s rare — and rewarding — for journalists to see such quick action resulting from stories we publish.

Now it’s time to look at what went wrong. There were obvious mistakes, such as bad timing and poor communication. Why impose a new tax on July 1, simultaneous with the HST?

Communication was inadequate and disclosure almost non-existent. Stores didn’t know what fees to charge. As Canadian Tire said yesterday, the fees were not intuitive — so why didn’t the company suspend them right away?

The Ontario government shouldn’t have handed over power to an organization it didn’t control. And it should have recognized there’s only one taxpayer and not pretended it was shifting costs when it wasn’t.

It’s hard to be against cleaning up the environment. But let’s do it through income taxes, rather than regressive sales taxes applied to basic items that everyone buys every day, such as soaps and detergents.

Stewardship Ontario CEO finally talks

July 16 2010 by Ellen Roseman

Gemma Zecchini, head of the group that runs the eco fee program, has given no interviews since the controversy began this month.

Typical of embattled CEOs, she picked late Friday to put out a news release apologizing for the embarassing mistakes.

“Our entire team feels terribly about the way in which our programs – and the way they are paid for – have angered consumers,” Zecchini said.

“We have listened to consumers and we have heard them, loud and clear.”

The organization will respond to criticism in the following ways:

* Post information on its website about the way it charges fees to the businesses that
manufacture, market, or sell products that ultimately wind up as waste.

* Ask consumers to contact the Stewardship Ontario call centre if they believe they
might have been over-charged, in order to help retailers to resolve any calculation errors
that may have been made.

* Advise businesses that they can’t charge eco fees in excess of Stewardship Ontario
guidelines, or they will face consequences for failing to comply with existing provincial
legislation.

* And increase communications to encourage people to use the Orange Drop program and bring household hazardous waste – like old paint cans and fluorescent light bulbs – to a municipal depot, collection event or participating store.

Stewardship Ontario said it’s helping the government with policy options to ensure that fees are accurately applied on designated products and communicated transparently to consumers at the point of sale.

I think this announcement is not enough. Price errors have been made and will continue being made for the next few weeks or months.

The Ontario government should stop stores from passing along eco fees on customers’ bills until this mess is straightened out.

Eco fee or eco tax?

July 15 2010 by Ellen Roseman

The Ontario Ombudsman wants to wade into this stinking pool of surcharges that are popping up on sales receipts. That’s great news.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that an eco fee really is a tax. Here’s why.

In my latest column, I said the goal was to shift the cost of disposing of hazardous wastes from taxpayers to product manufacturers and importers. That’s what I was told by Stewardship Ontario.

But everyone knows that businesses don’t absorb extra costs for long. They pass the costs on to consumers and that’s exactly what is happening.

Ontario Electronic Stewardship is a similar program for recycling computers, printers, TVs and phones. As you can see here, the fees have gone up substantially. Businesses will get consumers to swallow the cost.

These stewardship programs are shifting costs from municipal taxpayers to consumers. You and I are still paying to recycle hazardous wastes, but now it’s through a user-pay system.

It would be great if we could avoid buying these costly-to-dispose products, but we can’t. Today, the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association (CCSPA) and the Consumers Council of Canada (CCC) asked the Government of Ontario to remove soaps, detergents and cleaning products from the eco fee program.

“Consumers do not throw out half-empty containers of soap or detergent,” says CCC President Don Mercer. “Rather, they buy what they need and use it up. The eco fee, in effect, charges consumers for a service they will not use.”

Ontario makes money from eco fees. The harmonized sales tax is applied on top of the fees, so there’s a huge potential for higher revenue.

Blogger Preet Banerjee picked up on this point in his recent post.

Many readers told me they were shocked to see taxes piled on other taxes. Gasoline, for example, is already heavily taxed by both federal and provincial governments. Now it has the 13 per cent HST on top.

Some said they’ve seen stores charging 5 cents for plastic bags, adding HST (0.65 cents) and rounding up the cost to 6 cents. Is this even legal?

One reader, who paid 64 cents to mail a letter — since HST is added to the 57-cent cost of a postage stamp — pointed out that a stamp is also a tax.

Ontario should admit that eco fees are actually a tax. As such, they should be made visible and standardized. There should be a complete list published in booklet form, just as was done for the HST.

This is not a program of making businesses pay more. It’s a pass-through to the consumer.

Canadian Tire overcharging customers on eco fees

July 12 2010 by Ellen Roseman

Several people told me about being overcharged in environmental fees by Canadian Tire after my column last Saturday. So I did my own shopping trip tonight.

I bought three cleaning products:

— A 2.4-litre bottle of Javex bleach ($2.49), for which I paid an eco fee of 31 cents.

— An 828-ml bottle of C-L-R stain remover ($8.99), for which I paid an eco fee of 13 cents.

— A 2.26-litre bottle of Cascade dishwasher detergent ($7.49), for which I paid an eco fee of 43 cents.

Then, I checked out Stewardship Ontario and found the eco fees fit the guidelines for corrosives (the first two products I bought).

But the dishwasher deteregent was an irritant — not a corrosive — and should have had an eco fee of about less than 1 cent.

So, where did the wacky 43-cent fee come from?

I sent Amy Cole, a Canadian Tire spokeswoman, a bunch of emails from other readers who were overcharged. She got back to me today, saying they were entitled to a refund.

We’re currently auditing our point-of-sale system to correct any errors as quickly as possible. Customers that return to the store with a receipt will be reimbursed and any money that is not reimbursed to the customer will be remitted to Stewardship Ontario for its recycling and disposal efforts.

Eco fees were not intended to generate profit for us and we’re working to ensure the correct fees are charged going forward.

It’s bad enough to pay these eco fees, but the 13 per cent HST is levied on top. So, if you get a refund, make sure to ask for the HST too (about 12 cents for me).

I’m doing a follow-up column, so please tell me what you think of the eco fees and what experiences you’ve had with stores adding them to your bills.

Still waiting for rules on mortgage penalties

July 10 2010 by Ellen Roseman

In its last budget, the federal government promised to standardize the calculation and disclosure of mortgage prepayment penalties. Ursula Menke, head of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, says she expects something this fall.

If you want to know why greater clarity is needed, check out Nadeen’s story below. She’s being charged over $30,000 to break a $360,000 mortgage at BMO, when the penalty should be $8,000 under the interest rate differential formula.

The key issue: Even though her actual mortgage rate is 5.05 per cent, BMO is using the posted rate in effect when she took out the mortgage — about 6.45 per cent.

This posted rate, and the process for determining her penalty, was not disclosed in her mortgage contract. Her financial adviser, Ted Rechtshaffen, says it’s not right.

I am appalled that a major Canadian bank can charge this fee – essentially by making up the process along the way to suit their interests.

How many Canadians simply accept the fee and pay the bank an astronomical amount, or decide to keep their business at the bank because the fee is too high?

Mortgage rates are moving up. Economists speculated yesterday, after a healthy jobs report, that the central bank plans another quarter-point rate increase.

Still, the gaps between older and newer mortgage rates will continue, especially when banks insist on using fictitious posted rates that almost no one ever pays.

Let’s make sure Ottawa brings in tough new rules soon. Banks shouldn’t be allowed to play these games any longer.

Advice my readers want to share, part two

July 6 2010 by Ellen Roseman

People who make expensive mistakes or fall into hidden traps are anxious to share their pain with others. So, I’m updating my earlier post with advice from readers.

Joell had a bad experience shopping for mattresses at Sleep Country Canada. She returned the one she bought, which didn’t live up to its billing, but wants to point out flaws in the sales system.

Lou wants to warn seniors about being asked to sign up for an Optimum rewards card at Shoppers Drug Mart. His mother didn’t realize she’d be getting a new credit card, which she didn’t need, and not just a points card.

Linda has a digital TV package from Rogers, but feels she’s not getting her money’s worth because of a software bug that disables all programming information after midnight. As a late-night watcher, she resents being told to unplug her TV. Shouldn’t Rogers do better?

Finally, two people offer helpful information about RBC’s credit card bills and promotions.

Read and heed their advice below. These readers know what they’re talking about.