WebPiggy took my $100 and won’t give it back

After a bad experience, I’ll never buy a prepaid coupon again. And many people are telling me the same thing.

I paid $100 for $400 worth of meat at a Toronto store called The Butchers. Owner Marlon Pather couldn’t fulfill the orders and closed his doors for redemptions as the deadline loomed last September.

No problem. The deal site, WebPiggy, gave me a credit with no expiry date to use for other items.

But a few months later, my $100 credit is gone. I get an email that says WebPiggy has an alliance with Buytopia to feature its deals.

“Any WebPiggy credits are non-transferable, which means that you may not use them towards purchases on Buytopia, nor are they eligible for cash refunds,” says Trishelle in customer service.

How ethical is that? First, WebPiggy didn’t stand behind a supplier who reneged. Then, it didn’t stand behind its own pledge to customers.

Owner Harold Moore, are you there? Do you have anything to say to all the people you let down? Some spent $500 on coupons they weren’t able to use.

Another coupon site, Dealfind, also caught up in The Butchers fiasco, was acquired by TeamBuy. Owner Ghassan Halazon did talk to CBC Marketplace when asked about its restrictive refund policy in an April 12 show.

Be patient, Halazon said. As we grow, we will give refunds beyond the first few weeks. We will do better.

Who wants to wait? Groupon went public at $20 in November 2011, but its its stock price has dropped to $6.30. Investors are souring on the business.

After being burned, I’m dealing only with companies I trust to give my money back if a deal disappoints. If all of us do that, we can force the marginal players out of business.

How I resolve consumer issues for readers

I love my job. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping people fix problems that weigh them down. My daily thank you notes are fun to read.

In case you wonder how I can turn a corporate No into a Yes, here’s a guide.

What is the first step when readers ask for help?

I ask them to send me an email with all the details, including their contact information. Then I forward it to my contacts at large companies, asking them to review it.

What is the key to writing an effective email?

Keep it short. Use bullet points. After a few sentences, start another paragraph. Be clear what you want the company to do. Put your demand right at the beginning.

What if you prefer to call or meet in person?

I find talking on the phone is time-consuming. I rarely do face-to-face meetings for the same reason. Forwarding emails is fast and effective. That’s how I work.

How can I persuade companies to reconsider how they treat people?

I work for Canada’s largest newspaper, where I’ve been writing three columns a week for 15 years. My contacts know there’s a good chance I’ll write about them in the Toronto Star or my blog (or both).

Are there some kinds of complaints I don’t handle?

I’d love to help everyone who asks for help. But my email load keeps growing and I have to set limits.

I don’t handle complaints about workplace issues and landlord-tenant matters.

I don’t handle complaints about small companies. I look for household names.

I rarely handle complaints about new or used cars that don’t work. They require a technical expertise I don’t have.

Can I resolve problems with companies that are going under?

An insolvent company is a nightmare for consumers. Any remaining assets go to the landlords, the tax department and large creditors. There’s usually nothing left for customers who are owed money. You can’t expect me to perform miracles.

What is the secret of my success?

I focus on companies with a strong brand to protect. They advertise like crazy and want to be seen as good guys. They don’t like to be the subject of a critical column in a big daily newspaper.

When forwarding emails, I try to be friendly, courteous and respectful at all times. Insults and sarcasm don’t work.

How can you do better with your own complaints?

Start by saying how much you admire the company. You’re a loyal customer and you want your loyalty to be valued. You’ll consider leaving if you can’t get satisfaction.

Keep your emotions under control. Always be polite. Don’t use threats or confrontation. Stay calm.

How can you get companies to pay attention to you?

Try to escalate your complaint to a higher level. If you’re stuck in a call centre, hang up and start using Google.

Search for phone numbers and email addresses of company executives. Check the Better Business Bureau, which often has contact information.

Send emails to others outside the company, such as government, nonprofit groups and the media. The company should know that others are watching to see how it responds.

“Create a circle of eyes for the problem you’re trying to solve,” says Franke James, who wrote a chapter for my book on how to fight a company in the court of public opinion. “Increase the number of eyes dramatically by using the power of social media.”

Where can you learn more about how to fight back?

I’d love you to read my book, which has step-by-step instructions on mounting effective arguments in all kinds of transactions.

Here’s a brand-new review in a blog I like a lot, Canadian Mortgage Trends.

“The book is pretty inexpensive,” says blogger Robert McLister, “so the odds are good you’ll find one tip out of 81 that will offset the price.”

At last, new rules for water heater sellers (and others)

Here’s a story posted at the Star’s website today by Rob Ferguson in our Queen’s Park bureau. Let’s hope the bill is passed speedily in the Ontario Legislature.

All the MPPs and their staff must be sick of getting complaints about aggressive water heater pushers.

I’m frustrated with the continued exploitation of seniors, the unemployed, students, renters, newcomers to Canada and all the homeowners who post signs at the door saying No Solicitation — and still get pestered.

Ontario is taking aim at aggressive door-to-door water heater sales, saying complaints about bad apples in the industry are second only to collection agencies.

Consumer Services Minister Tracy MacCharles said she will introduce legislation soon to double the “cooling off” period to 20 days for people to cancel contract signed a the door.

The bill, if passed in the minority legislature, would ban door-to-door sales companies from installing water heaters during the 20-day period, require them to make follow-up telephone calls confirming sales and write contracts in plain language.

“This is an area of consumer concern,” MacCharles said at a west-end RONA store, noting some sales people say they’re with a consumer’s existing water heater supplier and there to do an inspection.

One tactic is to tell homeowners their hot water heaters are in dangerous condition.

“It’s a safety issue so sometimes people listen to the aggressive pitch,” MacCharles said.

The 20-day ban on installations is designed to short circuit those high-pressure sales.

If the rules are not followed, new suppliers will be forced to pay any cancellation fees the homeowner faces from the existing supplier.

The non-profit Homeowner Protection Centre applauded the bill, which it has been pressuring the government to implement.

“My advice to consumers is if you’re at all unsure, don’t sign,” said executive director Michael Lio.

“Take your time, talk to your current supplier, compare what you’re paying now and what you’re going to be paying.”

Lio said he “never” signs any deals at the door.

“I don’t have time to read all the brochures…think of all the skill-testing questions.”

Think before buying at the door

HRAI Door-to-Door - small

As the Ontario government considers a crackdown on door-to-door sellers, check out this infographic. (Click to enlarge.) It shows how much trust is placed in different types of services sold at the door.

If you’re unsure of the current law, the Ontario Ministry of Consumer Services has information on dealing with door-to-door sellers. Here’s a guide to your rights.

Here’s a story about a vacuum cleaner salesman who wouldn’t leave the home of an elderly widow until she signed a deal. She complained to the ministry and got $1,000 in restitution — and was allowed to keep the vacuum cleaner.

Water heater rentals and removals are high on the list of door-to-door offenders. Here’s a link to the ministry’s consumer beware list, where you can search by category.

And just for fun, check out the Kijiji ads for door-to-door sellers in Ontario. You find the usual suspects here (lawn care, burglar alarms, heating and cooling).

You can also find several ads for Bell, which is looking to sell home phone, Internet and TV by knocking on doors in multi-unit apartments.

“We are looking for individuals who are hunters (by nature),” say the Bell ads. “Opportunity to earn up to $70K+.”

Bell already pesters current and former customers by telemarketing and direct mail. Now it will be showing up at your door. Is there no privacy?