Making allowances for irresponsible decisions

January 26 2010 by Ellen Roseman

As a consumer advocate, I’m always troubled to hear about cases where people make errors in judgment. Do I help them? Or do I tell them to learn from their mistakes?

Here are a few complaints I received this week and the judgment calls I made about following up or not.

Maintenance not done on car.

“I bought a new van in 2008. After 49,000 kms, the engine goes. They claim that oil was the problem. I admit that it was not changed as often as should have been, but feel they should honour their warranty. They refused and I had to put a used engine in at a cost of $4,450.”

Airline tickets cancelled because of illness.

“My husband, son and I planned to take our first ever trip to Europe during the Christmas holidays. On Dec. 16, my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, requiring immediate surgery. We had to cancel. I heard that a lot of airlines provide refunds in cases of serious illness. My airline showed a complete lack of concern and said the tickets cannot be refunded.”

Frequent flyer points forfeited.

“Recently I went online to check the status of my Aeroplan points and learned that all my 61,000 points had been revoked. I was told that an email was sent to me saying my points would be lost if I did not make use of my Aeroplan card. I received no such email ! Since when is email 100% reliable? The only way to reinstate the points was to pay a $20 fee PLUS 1 cent per point ($350!!). Again, not fair.”

My response to all three cases: Look elsewhere for help.

The first reader should know that routine maintenance is required for cars, especially regular oil changes. Manufacturers’ warranties say that they can reject claims if you avoid regular trips to the garage. (You don’t have to use their dealers, but you do have to keep your bills.)

The second reader should know that travel insurance is designed to help in cases of sudden illness. No matter how young you are, you can get sick and have to stay home. Airlines may offer refunds, but they don’t have to. I wouldn’t count on goodwill gestures from companies if you didn’t get insurance that was readily available.

The third reader should know that Aeroplan has been zapping points for inactivity since 2004. The policy enhanced its appeal to investors when it was listed as a public company. You can find warnings at the website on keeping your account active. I’ve helped hundreds of members reinstate their points, but now find Aeroplan insists on buy-back fees. So, stay active. Use your card to buy groceries or gas.

Finally, I’m feeling conflicted about the many complaints I get about energy retailers. Yes, their salespeople lie all the time. But why do people believe what they’re told? Why don’t they read the contract and cancel? Why do they say yes when the company calls to confirm they know what they’re doing?

Buyer’s remorse is common. Customers want to save money if prices go up, but don’t want to suffer if prices go down. It’s a gamble and they lost.

Still, I handle complaints for those who are older, living on low income, new to Canada or new to homeownership. I also work with people who insist the salesperson deceived them. So, there aren’t many I turn down.

The sooner Ontario gets new laws in place to rein in these rapacious sellers, the better.

4 comments

  1. Michael James

    Jan 27 2010

    Of all the cases mentioned, I have the most sympathy for those mistreated by energy marketers.

    Even though I make a point of understanding their techniques, I find myself pausing when confronted by one of these people at my door. They say (or imply) that they work for a company I’ve dealt with for years and trust. Are they lying?

    It takes me a half-minute to decide that, yes, they are lying.

    One time, I nearly threw out a guy who actually did work for my gas company. He was there as part of some energy efficiency program to install low-flow shower-\heads, hot-water pipe insulation and such. Even after he gave me free parts and left without trying to sell me anything, I was still uncertain about him for a while.

    Energy marketing companies need to be held accountable for the people they send around to houses to lie for them.

  2. second opinion mike

    Jan 27 2010

    One of the challenges with a role such as yours, Ellen, is that you become well informed very early in the process. You are at the front of the parade as systemic issues become apparent and thus start to address the issue immediately.

    Because many consumers only absorb lessons when it has a personal context (it just happened to ME, so now I pay attention for the first time), consumer awareness is often at the end of the parade, months/years after you started dealing with an issue.

    I think if it is a misrepresentation/fraud/deception issue, then you will likely find yourself defending the duped consumer well after the issue has been explored to death.

    Be patient with us! We often have nobody else to turn to.