Consumer problems I’d like to fix

August 19 2008 by Ellen Roseman

I spend my days helping people resolve their complaints with goods and services purchased from large companies. It’s frustrating for them and also for me, when I see the same issues come up again and again.

Here are a few things I’d like to change ASAP.

Why does the government allow unregulated sellers to knock on doors and encourage households to sign expensive and restrictive contracts for their gas and electricity needs? When door-to-door sellers ask to see utility bills, but why do people hand them over?

I want to see strict controls on this industry, not administered by the weak and ineffectual Ontario Energy Board, and mandatory plain-language contracts. The misrepresentation and deception must end, since it penalizes more vulnerable consumers — older people, immigrants to Canada and new homeowners. Why are people so trusting of those who can’t be trusted?

Why is negative option marketing still around? We’ve seen large banks and retailers use it to push upgraded credit cards on customers. Even in Ontario, where the law prohibits this tactic, it’s still going on. See the comments posted below about lawn care companies and their “evergreen contracts.”

I find it disgraceful that companies pay attention to me — because I work for Canada’s largest daily newspaper — and pay little or no attention to those who keep them in business. Average customers find their voices are not heard.

There’s too much corporate focus on selling more, more and more — and insulating yourself from accountability for problems that crop up after the sale.

I wish people didn’t waste time waiting to speak to customer service reps who can’t help — and refuse to connect them to higher-level executives who can. I wish people didn’t tell me they’re losing sleep at night because of their intractable billing problems. Sometimes, they burst into tears on the phone.

Finally, I wish that governments in Canada treated consumer issues seriously. Politicians wade into the odd thing, such as high Canadian book prices or cell phone carriers that charge for incoming text messages. But it’s all in their quest for votes.

Why can’t they do the right thing for the right reason and really start protecting people from marketplace abuses?

35 comments

  1. Ernie

    Aug 19 2008

    The real problem seems to be that the two main sources of respite, the BBB and the media, are toothless and largely inaccessible, respectively. Where is the Ministry when we need them? Are we all to go the Small Claims Court route?

  2. Grampa Ken

    Aug 20 2008

    We have more of these situations because we do not complain enough. That’s because there’s just so much to complain about and the results are frustrating.

    In the interest of its citizens, government could establish an interactive complaints department and actively market the service (just like a big business) to the public for submissions of consumer complaints. A pipe dream but what a social benefit.

    It must be made easier, in some way, for consumers to expose unethical business practices and get them stopped.

  3. Joanna Alpajaro

    Aug 21 2008

    On the issue of negative billing, can you tell me what you think about this situation?

    I am a part-time student at University of Windsor. My tuition for the fall for my online course was due on Aug. 15, 2008. When I reviewed the online information system, I noticed there was an additional $140 charge for drug/dental coverage.

    I emailed the cashier’s office immediately to ask for an explanation, which basically was as follows:

    The OPUS (Organization of Part-time University Students) drug and dental plan is a new mandatory fee that every part-time undergraduate student is required to pay up front. If, however, you have coverage elsewhere, and would like to opt out, you can opt out online in the month of September only at: http://www.uwindsor.ca/opus. The OPUS office will then issue your refund. If you have any further concerns, you can contact the OPUS office at: 519-253-3000 ext. 3603.

    Would this be considered negative billing? I neither requested nor do I want drug/dental coverage, as I have ample coverage through my husband’s benefits. This would in effect “loan” the University my money interest-free for a month or so until the refund cheque would be paid.

    The cashier’s office also confirmed that by not paying, I am subject to interest on the amount on a daily basis.

    I also don’t like how the onus is on the student to opt out and the time frame is so short. I am assuming I will have to go through this inconvenience each semester when I register for a course.

    I would love to know what you think, Ellen.

    Thanks,
    Joanna

  4. Ellen Roseman

    Aug 24 2008

    Joanna, you asked about negative option billing for university fees, such as a dental plan. I agree this fits into the category of things we’re talking about.

    However, a university is NOT a business. It’s in the nonprofit sector, so it’s probably exempt from the provincial laws on consumer transactions.

    I think the university’s governing body must have approved of this arrangement. Here’s the reasoning:

    –It’s a good thing for students to have insurance coverage for drug and dental bills.

    –If you asked students to pay voluntarily, most would say no. They’re stretched enough financially.

    –But if you force them to pay and allow them to opt out, many won’t bother. They’ll stay in the insurance plan through laziness or inertia.

    –Insurance companies want as many people as possible to enrol, since this helps bring down the rates and the risk. So they love negative option marketing.

    –The only people who are disadvantaged as those who don’t need the coverage (like you). They have to work to get out and also pay interest on their outstanding “debt” for a month or two. Maybe you can try to organize the non-participants to get a refund of the interest payments.

  5. ex-310-Bell

    Aug 26 2008

    I took my last call as a 310-Quebec rep a few days ago. I’ll tell you right now that if the vendor is well-run and the rep is experienced and competent, it should not matter if they’re internal or vendor. There were a fair number of agents at my site who routinely outperformed internal agents…

    Mind you, there’s another centre where I live that does 310-Ontario, and that place is apparently a basket case (from what friends of mine who work or have worked there have told me, which is funny given as how they have fancy new computers and stuff compared to us).

    Direct Energy is equally culpable, whether the agent who is unable to perform a routine task is internal or a vendor, just as Bell is equally culpable whether mediocre quality control and false information is internal or from a vendor.

  6. ex-310-Bell

    Aug 26 2008

    The United States government has allowed a firm based in the United Arab Emirates (a country that I knew sucked the moment I heard that people are thrown in jail for 20 years if they’re caught with a fraction of hashish on their person) to manage some of its ports.

    If things go bad and the American people get up in arms over it, I certainly hope their government is ethical and responsible enough to accept the blame for outsourcing to a shoddy company.

  7. Alex

    Dec 2 2008

    Last September, a woman Soliciting for Universal Power appeared at the door of an apt I was renting with my girlfriend in Kingston, Ontario. She was very vague about the entire thing, and after asking her to repeat herself several times, I felt confident that she was actually working for Utilities Kingston (which obviously was inaccurate, but this is what her lies led me to believe). I couldn’t understand her claims about fixing our utilities rates etc, so she asked me to get a copy of our last utilities bill so that she could point out the rate we were paying, and then explain what we could be paying under the direct energy plan. Apparently while doing this, she copied down our account number and other information. Having still no idea what she was talking about, but realizing that it was something involving a 5-year plan, I declined to sign, telling her that we would be residing there only one year.

    She convinced me to sign by (falsely) informing me that my signature did not lock me into a contract, but that it was just giving them permission to contact us by telephone on Nov 11 2007 to further solicit our involvement in the plan. She also said that it was so that they could send us a cheque for $20 (for which we had no interest and didn’t cash).

    On Nov 11 2007, Universal Power called asking me why we hadn’t cashed the cheque. I told them that I had heard that cashing the cheque is a way of confirming the contract, one that we had no interest in entering into. The woman on the other end of the phone attempted to harass me into entering into the agreement, but I am 100% certain that at no point did I give consent (rather, I explicitly stated that we wanted nothing to do with them, we hadn’t cashed the cheque and we did not give consent). At this point I thought it was all over.

    In June we move apts and are now living somewhere that the Utilities is included in the rent. So obviously we cancelled our Utilities account in June. Tonight, over a year since the original phone conversation, my girlfriend got a call from a collections agency saying not only did we owe Universal Power approximately $811 for early cancellation in June, for interest since then, but also that her credit rating has been ruined. At no point had we received any evidence that we were in a contract (whether it be by mail or telephone). As far as we knew, we had luckily escaped this via the phone call last Nov 2007.

    We called Universal Power, and at first they couldn’t even locate our file (even with our account number). They continued to inform us that we 1) signed the contract at the door (which is true to an extant, but it was entirely under false pretenses because the saleswoman misrepresented herself) and that 2) they have a recording of us verbally agreeing on Nov 11 2007 (which is entirely false… if they listened to that recording it would be my voice telling them “not interested”).

    Upon telling them that we are students at Queen’s University, they were surprised and said that students could not legally enter into this contract; however, because we were originally approached on Sept 1st (days before classes started) we were technically not considered students, and had therefore been entered into the contract anyway (so far as I understand).

    When we told them that we aren’t paying Utilities now because it is included in our lease, the man we were speaking to, Jasper (“as in Jasper Alberta” he told us), kindly informed us that there may have been a mistake. Because we aren’t at a location where we are paying Utilities (and I don’t pretend to understand this), we didn’t terminate early and could be removed from the program and wouldn’t have to pay the initial $600 bill or the $200 of interest. Apparently all we have to do is to send them a copy of our lease stating that our landlord, not us, pays the Utilities -and also 2 copies of our cable bills confirming that we do in fact live at this address.

    As for whether or not her credit rating could be revived was not addressed. Now initially it seemed like a good way out, but upon further consideration I’m not sure that this is the route we should take. I feel like they have been so sleazy and dishonest that I cannot trust them or their latest ploy. I have the feeling that it would be better to argue are case on the basis that we NEVER entered into the contract with them to begin with, rather than putting our faith in them to actually remove us from the program and terminate the remaining charges. I feel like its just another way to swindle us into doing something that they can later use against us.

    So my plan is to contact our Utilities company in the morning to see what other people (and I know that there are others) have done in this situation. I also thought I should contact the Fraud Squad at the Police Dept and the Better Bureau Business. A friend told me that she had luck at her local Member of Provincial Parliament’s office, and that they actually took care of it for her.

    Obviously it was a mistake signing the original document, but again, it was actually 100% a con. Beyond that, we made it quite clear that we had no agreement. It’s crazy that we only now here of this, over a year since the original phone call in which we confirmed that there was no contract, and apparently 6 months after the alleged “early termination”, from a collections agency! If anyone has any suggestions, please help. We can’t afford to pay these ridiculous charges, and even less so to have our credit ratings ruined.

  8. Alex

    Dec 6 2008

    So I talked with Jasper again last night… After getting nowhere with legal aid, our utilities company, etc etc… We had decided to go ahead and send Universal Power our new lease (stating we are no longer paying utilities), and proof of address (bills addressed to both me and my girlfriend at this address). Apparently it’s all taken care of. He said that we should be receiving a letter in the mail shortly confirming that our account was closed, that we didn’t owe them the termination fee or the subsequent interest charges and that the collections agency would be called off.

    I guess now we have to see what we can do about reviving our credit rating now that the charges have been dropped entirely. We wanted to post this here in the hope that our experience either warns others about this scam, or suggests an escape route for those in situations similar to our own!

  9. Anna

    Feb 10 2009

    Alex, that same company came to my door in Kingston as well. The story is a little different, though. This is how aggressive these companies get.

    Two young men came to my door. As I have some training in marketing double speak and NLP type of language, I recognized their tactics immediately. I was angry because such tactics can very much confuse an elderly person and my 94 year old mother in law lives here as well.

    While these young men are talking and asking to see a copy of my utility bill, they edged their way into my home. They are standing in the front hall. I had asked them to back out the door and they stood and kept talking.

    I asked several times, finally saying if they did not leave I would call the police. They continued talking, asking me why I would do that in a loud manner. They were getting agitated. I raised MY voice and stood my ground and ordered them out of my home.

    I then did phone the police. I cannot tell you how intimidating this was. I had been a victim of crime in the past and it was all I could do not to get very upset that these men were not leaving upon my first, second and fifth requests to leave.

    The police did come and they did take my report seriously, as the language that was used was threatening towards me. “If you don’t sign this, someone will be by later to FORCE you to pay x amount.”

    I was more angry that they would use this sort of language than anything, thinking of how intimidating it was to me and how it may be even more so to someone home alone or who is not able to stand up to them. I was told both were fired…by the company…I’m not so sure.

    I signed nothing but, in order to not sign, I really had to get very assertive with them. I can see how people are lied to, intimidated and outright scammed into signing for these “services” The language they use and their manner is nothing short of an intimidating con game. These practices are a threat to consumers.

    I wish I had taped the conversation and had been able to sue that company. If the police took what they had done seriously enough to file the complaint, then it’s time this is stopped. They knew I was intimidated and getting afraid and it was ONLY the threat of the police arriving that got them to leave finally, but only after I had made them know in no uncertain terms that I meant business about calling them.

    What kind of company sends someone to your door who edges into your home and won’t leave unless you literally raise your voice and yell at them that the police are coming? This is disgraceful!!

  10. Naushad

    Mar 12 2016

    Dr. Green Lawn Care contacted me last year to sell a plan. They said that if I signed the contract, the first winter maintenance treatment would be free and I could cancel any time without charges.

    They came pretty early in July-August to spray, without calling or setting up an appointment. I called them to cancel the plan, but they sent me an invoice. When I called, they were rude and said I still had to pay.

    They are sending me invoices every month with interest. I don’t know if I am obliged to pay. Thanks.