What happened to Canada’s consumer movement?

The Consumers’ Association of Canada used to be a strong national voice. It’s now a shadow of its former self. The Consumers Council of Canada is desperately under-funded. Only in Quebec do consumer groups get support from the government for their activities.

In the United States, Consumers Union is still going strong after 75 years. Its magazine, Consumer Reports, somes out each month and even has a small Canada supplement. It recently acquired The Consumerist website, where shoppers fight back.

The U.S. has another well-respected group, The Consumer Federation of America, doing research, education and advocacy since 1968. I like its work on the need for a fiduciary standard for all financial advisers. (A fiduciary puts the client’s interests first.)

If you do a Google search for Canada’s consumer movement, you find my CBC commentary from last September, bemoaning the fact that organized lobby groups are so quiet. Thank goodness for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which does an impressive amount of research and representation of consumers at regulatory hearings.

I know that many Canadian consumers feel ignored and abused. They’re still waiting for rules to standardize mortgage penalties, fight spam and force companies to recall unsafe products. Without a strong lobby, the federal government can do nothing and get away with it.

What would it take to get Canadians to fight for the right to be treated fairly and respectfully? How can a nation of complacent consumers be turned into activists? Please let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, let me direct your attention to a blog called Fearless Revolution by a former U.S. advertising executive, Alex Bogusky, who wants to rewrite the famous consumer bill of rights drafted in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy.

It’s an ambitious project, but one that could reinvigorate the consumer movement.

What’s behind those high fees when you order tickets for shows?

Moneyville was doing a series of articles about extra fees. So I mentioned my experience ordering tickets for the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront Centre.

Then I heard from others who were shocked at the size of the ticket fees. Is there a way to get around them?

Seems to me there’s a trend to advertise lower prices and then zap you with surcharges. It’s hardly informed consent if you don’t learn the total cost of the transaction until the very end.

Are the ticket fees here to stay? And why do you get less and less service for the charges you pay?

Telecom troubles, part three

Telecom complaints keep streaming in. I’m hearing many laments about billing surprises when travelling with a smart phone or mobile internet device.

Customers are learning to turn off data roaming and find free WiFi connections in coffee shops and public places. Check out my Moneyville piece.

Premium text messages are still an issue. The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services in his annual report says he resolves almost all the complaints that reach his office.

But what about the people who can’t get refunds from cellphone companies — or can’t even find out how to stop the pricey text messages? How did Canada’s telecom lobby group get the right to pass them along without restrictions? Have they improved the lives of consumers?

In a column this week, I talked about the new complaint agency and its mandate — now under review by the telecom regulator. There’s a public hearing later this month.

Why do we need an agency that can determine whether companies follow their own rules, but can’t review the fairness of the rules? This just institutionalizes the power imbalance that exists between consumers and telecom companies.