Happy holidays to my readers

Now that I have a blog at Moneyville, I’m not writing here as often as before. But I’m committed to keeping this one going.

You may have noticed it’s been going down a lot. The traffic was crashing my outdated virtual private server.

I’m happy to say I’ve switched to a new hosting service, which should be more reliable. Just in time, too.

Last Monday, I found all the comments (close to 8,000) had disappeared. Imagine losing that collective wisdom from readers. Luckily, they were recovered in a few hours.

This was a terrific year for news at the blog. In January, I talked about Rogers raising prices on home phone service and cutting internet limits for subscribers.

Some of the comments explored a question that came up in April as well: If companies record your phone conversations, do you have a right to tape them yourself?

In May, I heard that MBNA was raising minimum payments for credit card customers who had been promised low rates indefinitely. Many saw this as a breach of contract, since they would lose the low rate if they couldn’t come up with the minimum payments. The conversation has attracted more than 120 comments, both pro and con, and still rages on.

In June, the Canada Revenue Agency started charging penalties to people who had taken money out of a tax-free savings account and replaced it in the same year. I felt the rules hadn’t been explained clearly enough. Many readers disagreed with me, saying they had no sympathy with those who owed as much as $1,250 in taxes.

Luckily, Ottawa backed down on its demands for payment in the first year.

In July, Ontario imposed a disastrous regime of environmental fees on household products. Canadian Tire started charging customers — and often overcharging them — without advance notice.

Again, thanks to the publicity created here and elsewhere, the government backed off. Unfortunately, eco fees (or taxes, as they should be called) still remain on electronic products, tires and paint.

That same month, Enbridge Gas bungled its budget billing plan, sending big bills to customers who weren’t expecting them in the summer. More than 60 people wrote comments here.

I continue to get complaints about Enbridge and Direct Energy, both of which upgraded their billing systems at the same time and lost track of some accounts for a number of months.

In September, I wrote about how hard it is for some people to exercise their legal right to check their credit reports for free at Canada’s two credit bureaus. The issue lingers on, awaiting stronger rules that would establish a single source for ordering credit reports (as in the United States).

In October, I talked about the frustration many readers feel when trying to call Rogers Communications. Since then, my Rogers contacts have kept in close touch with me to make sure that readers’ problems are resolved. They also tell me that call waiting times are going down. Do you agree?

Another hot topic that month, as furnaces were being inspected and some were being tagged for repairs, was the cracked heat exchanger scam. Surely, not every furnace that gets this diagnosis really deserves it.

In November, I started looking more closely at Canada’s consumer movement. It’s down, but is it out? Can it be revived? What would it take to restore the balance in the marketplace between big businesses and busy, overstressed, time-starved consumers?

Check out my speech about consumer activism to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s annual dinner here. It’s a subject I’ll return to in the upcoming year.

Hope you take time off during the holidays and usher in 2011 in style. Thank you for visiting, reading and posting. Please come again. Your comments are always welcome.

Charges can pile up when you end your car lease

I don’t believe in leasing. Instead, I like to buy cars that last for years and drive them into the ground. My 1998 Toyota Sienna minivan is still going strong.

Still, I know that leasing has its attractions. You can trade in your car before the manufacturer’s warranty runs out and get something newer and nicer. And you don’t have to pay the sales tax up front, since you pay it as you go each month.

But danger may lie in wait when you surrender a leased car to the dealer. You could get a $3,600 bill for excess wear and tear, as Neil Rau did with his leased Mini Cooper. It was a real shocker, he told me.

It’s not unusual to get dinged for damage if you don’t return a leased car in mint condition. So, you should identify the repairs that need to be done and do them yourself.

The leasing company will make you pay prices far in excess of what you would pay on your own. For example, Dr. Rau ended up with a $1,500 bill for four tires.

The Mini dealer said they were special tires that could go for 100 kilometres or more when they were flat. Even so, that’s a mighty expensive set of wheels.

Why did he have to pay for new tires at all? After 56,000 kilometres of driving, “you would expect the tires would normally be at the end of their life. This seems to be a misinterpretation of ‘excess’ wear and tear,” a reader said.

Maybe it’s better to keep the car when the lease ends. If so, does anyone have any tips on negotiating a buyout?

I’m posting a few stories about bad experiences with end-of-lease charges.

Electronic readers: Which one to buy?

It’s the hot holiday gadget. The electronic book reader can be yours for just $149, including wireless connections for ordering and downloading books.

I’m talking about the Kobo, the e-reader marketed by Chapters-Indigo in its stores and online. The Amazon Kindle isn’t shipping to Canada until January, as the Star reported.

I did a column about my Sony Reader, which I still enjoy and carry around with me, and my new Apple iPad, which I use for reading books at home.

Moneyville did a rebuttal, saying an e-reader is better than a tablet.

You can see (from the 24 comments on my column) that e-readers are controversial. The formats aren’t standardized yet, so it’s not clear which one will be the winner. Remember Betamax versus VHS in video cassettes?

Also, I heard from many readers that the Kindle doesn’t work with library downloads because of Amazon’s proprietary technology. You need the ePub format, which Sony and Kobo can accept and Kindle can’t.

I also heard that iPad and iPhone screens are backlit, while e-reader screens are not. The back lighting can be harder on your eyes and cause strain if you read for hours at a time.

E-readers are not going to replace the traditional book, in my view. You can disable your e-reader if you drop it or expose it to water, while the old-fashioned book is much sturdier.

I heard from a man who bought 80 e-readers and found more than 10 per cent were damaged by users.

The screen on these devices is somewhat fragile. For one, they are not flexible and hard objects that land on them can render the screen useless. Essentially, they are not repairable.

I think this is great technology with a lot of potential, but there is also a slight downside that no one seems to be noting.