Telecom ombudsman upholds Bell’s verbal contract

I think contracts should be written and signed by both parties. A verbal contract is unfair — especially if the consumer is not aware that it exists.

Suppose you’re speaking to Bell Canada and you’re offered a discount. You say OK, but don’t ask any questions. You have no idea you’ve entered into an informal contract.

Some time later, you switch your business to another firm. Bell makes you repay all your monthly discounts, going back to when you received them, in your final bill.

Since you didn’t know you had a contract, you didn’t know when it expired. And if you did know the expiry date, you could have delayed your switch for a few months.

I wrote about this issue here a few months ago, but now I have an update. Daryl Charanduk, whose comment appears in the earlier post, appealed Bell’s decision to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS).

CCTS upheld Bell’s verbal contract, based on the information given by both sides. Check out its decision posted below.

As for Charanduk, he’s still unhappy with Bell. But he’s happy he switched. Now he’s paying much less than he did with Bell, even after receiving the fictitious discount that was later clawed back.

Author: Ellen Roseman

Consumer advocate and personal finance author and instructor.

26 thoughts on “Telecom ombudsman upholds Bell’s verbal contract”

  1. A dangerous ruling and real loss to thousands of unsuspecting consumers….

    Reverse selling tactic.. ‘if you don’t respond at the end of your contract, then you have entered into another term’??

    Guess what, there are some major banks that do the same thing with your mortgage… yes, it’s true….

  2. Come on folks. You have to have verbal contracting in place for many many services we consume. We do it with all utilities and many many things we order. How about giving out your credit card number for a purchase over the phone? I think it is ridiculous to think we have to sign EVERYTHING. And yes, you have to read the fine print. ON every bill. The Bell case is reasonable. yes, many times, corporations make mistakes. But most of the major firms have made it quite clear what you are getting into. They have cleared up alot of the old ways of doing business. And if you don’t know when your mortgage is coming up for renewal, you aren’t managing your finances well.

  3. @Nash: Agreed. We do need verbal contracting, but some of the confusion can be done away with by forcing the offeror of the contract to explictly state that by agreeing over the phone you are accepting a contract.

    Most telemareters keep recording of conversations so it seems easy enough to enforce these verbal contracts.

    It should also be required that any terms and conditions not stated verbally must be followed up by a paper document/contract, with the purchaser given a number of days to refuse the terms and cancel before it becomes binding.

  4. Nice thread. I recently changed my home telephone plan with Bell, only to have a customer representative call me a week later attempting to persuade me to change my existing plan. This occurred after a 20 minute discussion as to what was best for my situation, given the activity on the phone.

    I don’t believe this is good customer relations. I was forced to persuade the representative that the previous representative’s discussion of my plan was the one I wanted.

  5. How disconcerting. A few years ago when my now-wife moved in to my home, she cancelled her cable and internet services with Rogers. They tried to charge her an early termination fee, saying that she had signed a contract. She informed Rogers that she had never signed a contract and refused to pay until they proved that she had signed or verbally agreed to a contract. They couldn’t, so she didn’t have to pay the fee. With this ruling, I imagine the outcome would have been quite different. We recently moved a few of our services to Bell and my wife, based on her past experience, asked the rep if we would be held to a contract. They said no, but I guess we’ll see what happens if we decide to switch.

  6. I guess Bell better up hold my verbal contract. I have a 3yr contract for internet at $35 before taxes. This month, my bill came in at $2 and taxes higher. They increased the internet package I subscribe to. Well, I have a three yr contact and I want my pricing. I already shot an email off to the executive offices expecting this to be corrected. This is actually the 2nd time they have changed the pricing in my contract. The 1st time was the modem increase.

    All I can say is once October comes, my internet and phone service is going to Eastlink. See ya later bell.

  7. The concept of consumer protection is that the average person does not recieve training on contract law and thus needs to be protected when entering into contracts. It seems some readers think consumers should intrinsically “know the law” or suffer the consequences. A simple solution would be to send a paper contract to the consumer, have a follow-up call to review the actual written contract and record that conversation. This way you gain the convenience of not exchanging written/signed documents by mail, however it would be very clear you knew the contract existed and had the terms explained. It would also be helpfull to have the contract maturity date on the bill. Clearly the convenience factor is not sufficient excuse to allow big companies to trample consumer rights on vague contracts. The law should set the bar higher for the phone company and lower for the consumer.As for Ombudsman, my experience is they act for the industry on every complaint and a consumer is highly unlikely to find fairness or satisfaction with any industry driven process.

  8. Well, I was finally able to connect with and speak with Patrick at Bell’s Executive Office regarding my $2+ increase during my contract.

    He asked me if I got an email or something about it. I said no, and regardless, I have a contract. So the amount is to be credited for the length of my contract (7 months and 10 days to go).

    I continued my conversation and brought it all back to the contract. Not that it really mattered, since they were wrong.

  9. Ah yes, I guess many people think that we should receive a paper copy of every transaction we conduct over the phone. In this day and age of reduce, reuse, recycle, that’s just a ridiculous premise.

    Every provider you deal with outlines its terms and conditions on their website. If you do need to confirm something in writing, most will do it via email.

    And yes, the onus sits with the customer to be educated on what they are buying. Get the details up front, document them and ensure you have them handy when you need them. Common sense.

  10. My company’s ISP is Bell. While I was aware of our 3 year contract and willing to honour my commitment, I was counting the days until I could leave behind the poor customer service and unreliable email and internet connection.

    When our office moved locations, I asked specifically if the move would affect my contract end date and was assured it would not. Well, guess what? I have a brand new 3 year term that I am currently disputing with little progress.

    When the contracts are verbal, how do you defend yourself against \mistakes\ that are given verbally? There is also an extra $90 charge on my bill after the move that no one at Bell can explain. Every month, the customer service reps say they will have it removed and yet it has yet to go away. I can’t wait to be finished with these clowns.

  11. Fine and good. Verbal contracts are ubiquitous and accepted.

    Yes, Bell Canada notes on your bill that your renewal is coming up. However, who reads every page of their bill?

    In our business, we have many Bell bills that come in every month, amounting to 20 some pages every month. If the Bell bill was our only bill, perhaps I would take the time to look it over. However, we have many other bills.

    In this age of computer miracles, why will Bell not flag our file so that an automatic renewal will not occur?

    They have told me that this cannot be done and they understand my frustration.

    Of course, the real reason must be that their automatic renewal is ultra lucrative. Bell benefits from many of their account holders not really investigating their bills.

    I am told that in three years when my account comes up for renewal, I must notify Bell that I do not want to renew. You can bet that we will find a way to notate this in our records, so that we will terminate our contract and leave Bell to go with a far less expensive service provider.

    They need to back off the lip service and give more customer service.

  12. It would benefit everyone greatly to review very basic legal concepts, especially the variance between issues controlled by the law common (english law), the code napoleon (quebec and France) and the code ‘civil’ (Roman law, which the code napoleon emmulates)in Canada.

    Using verbal contract for simplicities sake does not exclude the contractor from the responsibility of providing a tangible contract via email or snail mail. Excusing a contractor from said responsibility is, in all fairness, an attack on the client.

    Those interested should undertake an examination of how the nominally ‘protesting’ nations of the West have been subverted by all manner of Praemunire…inclusive of statutory forms of said.

    The ‘ombudsman system’ is a system designed to undercut Rule of Law, and does not (in any way, shape, or form) protect or insure justice for the injured.

    Let the ‘tax debtor’ (for no longer are we ‘citizens’) beware.

  13. I recently concluded living through this nightmare with Bell. They have recently moved some billing services to the Caribbean and suffer disconnects and other regional attitudes unfamiliar to me. This was an 8+ hour exercise over 2 days. Honestly 8 hours, 8 persons, and a broken promise to call me back at 9:30 AM today. Actually, I am kind of happy that I did not get called back as I doubt the lady was going to work as hard as Rebecca in Ottawa did for me – and I am thanking her here! We used the concept of reverting to pricing without the contract discounts to work out a deal that both myself and Bell could live with. It is likely due to the fact that we only just missed the cutoff date to terminate the automatically renewing contract, but we had other circumstances. Our company is actively searching to reduce costs and we knew that we could get better pricing and service from a Bell Internet competitor than any Bell rep was willing to offer – until we had started the new service and called to cancel. Then Bell played this hidden card. This situation played out both on my residential and then on the business Internet service. We did our research, asked Bell to be competitive, they offered what they wanted and we moved away. When we cancelled with Bell the tears and offers suddenly appeared.

    In our research of the business Internet service we had with Bell we were clearly told that we had no contract and that better pricing was available only with the contract. The term and the pricing were just not that attractive so we did not go with a contract. Now, when it came to cancellation, a contract was figuratively held before for ransom – 9 months to go! No way! So with patience and tenacity I nurtured the discussion with Bell and, as I said with Rebecca’s help, we only paid $15 for the difference in the plans. For $15 I will be saving over $50/mth plus tax. Yes my time is worth $150/hr, but this had to be done and I got there.

    Just a final note. Bell instituted a new system in April that now allows them to notify you by email that your contract is coming due for renewal. I do not know how many of Bell staff know that this exists. If you are not on their system (guess we were not) they won’t ask, but make sure you get on it or suffer a wasted day like I did. Bell still loves the auto-renew contract and seems to have never made a plan to work with any other concept until last April.

    Bell Mobility be warned – you are next on my list.

  14. We deal with many large Bell service contracts. We understand the need for an initial contract for Bell to either recover their costs for a certain construction or equipment costs (thereby lowering our initial one time costs) or to justify providing a lower price than they would to a month to month customer. On any written Bell contract, we are sure to stroke out the auto renew portion or have Bell reissue the contract with the auto renew portion removed (which they quite willingly do).

    What is disturbing about this CCTS decision is they simply accept the fact that Bell can no longer produce the IVR records. Without the IVR records there is no understanding of what constitutes the agreement. We don’t know if the auto renew terms of the agreement where explained to the customer and if the customer agreed to the auto renew clause. If neither of these happened during the conversation, the customer would not have had any reason to expect his contract to renew and Bell would have had no right to issue the auto renewal. In fact, if Bell destroys the contract (literally rips it up), does a contract really still exist? Shouldn’t they keep an never ending contract on file forever?

    It seems that a major concern with these verbal (IVR) contracts is that only one party has possession of the details of the contract. It would be an easy matter for companies that initiate verbal contracts to email the IVR record to the consumer as soon as the conversation is completed. This seems like something that an industry watchdog like the CCTS should demand of its members or that various consumer protection groups demand that government legislate.

  15. I am in the 4th year of a 3 year contract. I readily agreed to the first 3 year contract, but not to the auto renewal.

    Bell sent me ONE notice, which was on my bill the month the contract was renewing, not before.

    Bell was very smart to put the paragraph under the title MISCELLANEOUS AND OTHER CHARGES.

    I owed no money under this section. The balance read 0, so it was very easy to miss.

    So I’m stuck honouring the contract for 2 more years, paying triple what their competition offers.

    Bell loses a 30 year customer, plus anyone else I can convince to switch. Good job, Bell.

  16. I am now just another out of the thousands of tax paying citizens that has been lied to, and abused by Bell customer service representatives.

    Originally, three years or so ago, I signed up with Bell when my fiancee and I moved into a new apartment. I made sure there was no contract attached to the phone, internet, or ExpressVu. I was assured there would be no contracts in place. Yeah right.

    I called about a year and a half later to cancel my television service. “We are sorry to hear that, let me make a credit to your account if you will keep the service.” was what the retention rep told me. Being a former Bell Sympatico call center rep, I asked profusely to make sure this would not put a contract on my service. She repeatedly told me it would not.

    We were moving, and I wasn’t so sure. I asked if there were charges for moving the services I had with Bell and she said there would be no charges. So, for the $22 a month for ExpressVU (which I never got), I decided to stick it out for a while.

    Well, we moved. Bell charged me $50 to move that ExpressVu (first lie), then when I wanted to cancel, they told me I was now on a contract. I’m sure you can imagine the swear words that came out of my mouth. So I sucked it up for a while.

    Then, we were moving again. Instead of dealing with more charges, and crappy ExpressVu, I was switching to Cogeco! (yay!) Cancellation fee? Fine.

    So I call over to internet, because now I can get wireless with Cogeco if I buy a modem. And guess what? Apparently, that same day I called to cancel the TV (I made no mention of Internet since I didn’t know I could get wireless with Cogeco), I “agreed” to be placed on a contract not only for my TV, but for my Internet as well! I canceled it all. I figure the $300 in ETF’s was well worth getting out of there.

    I made a report to the BBB, and of course, it went unresolved because I had to come up with proof that I DIDN’T agree to a contract. If you ask me, Bell should be the ones showing proof that I AGREED to be on a contract with them.

    How is this legal? Why is the government allowing this to happen? Because they get the TAXES from all the B.S. charges Bell places on its customers. I wonder how much taxes the government would lose if it made this sort of thing illegal, or stepped it up to where the customer had to go through the form online and click an agree button to each contract, and renewed contract.

    I honestly think everyone who has been lied to, abused, and driven near to the point of psychosis by Bell should rally up and form some kind of lawsuit, or get better laws on this sort of thing. I don’t want my children, or anyone’s children for that matter, to have to deal with this any more. It’s stress and frustration (let alone money) that is unnecessary.
    Who’s with me?

  17. I am of course ANOTHER extremely disillusioned ex-Bell customer. I can’t believe for the life of me that these types of business practices are even permitted, let alone supported by our government!

    Another example of useless bureaucrats acting on behalf of big business and not protecting the voting public. It’s almost laughable – why would the ombudsman even respond to a consumer compliant? Why bother explaining why we’re getting screwed over – just let it happen. What really is your job? I’m at a loss!

    Don’t explain what your interpretation of the events are – gather a few million Bell customers who have been extorted and put together a lawsuit or legislation that will actually make a difference to consumers! You’re useless!

    Well I’m sure at least whoever it was that responded felt good about filling their day with doing at least something!! Ah yes, another day messing over the little guy – who wants a drink?

    I’m absolutely flabbergasted and shocked as a consumer that SOME businesses are allowed to practice this wholly unfair business practice.

    Where in any other industry are you allowed to charge for services untendered? If I go to a salon and agree to a hair cut by a stylist, is there an implied contract by paying my bill that I will continue to go to this stylist for the following three years and if I choose not to, does this ‘implied’ contract afford the salon the right to charge me for services I have chosen not to have? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yet this is what is exactly happening in the telecommunications industry.

    The idiotic Bell supervisor (and I’m being kind) that I spoke to about cancelling my internet services (3 months early) because I was moving and was not choosing to keep my Bell service due to numerous reasons, as many of you point out above, told me that the ETF that I was being charged is ‘industry standard’. What does that mean?

    Not only is it not true, as there are several companies that agree to not charge ETF fees, but to allow Bell to stand behind such incredibly unfair business practices is, in my opinion, borderline extortion. Where are our rights as consumers? How can there not be a legal action against this type of business practice?

    As someone who is familiar with contract law, there are ways to provide to consumers the same contract language in such a way (especially in today’s advanced world of technology) that would protect both the consumer and the business. For example, how about sending an email or a letter that actually has to be signed stating that the consumer agrees to renew their existing contract and if the letter is not signed then the services will be terminated?

    I, for one, would have relished my Bell services being terminated because I didn’t respond to a letter than to have them automatically ‘renew’ 3 YEAR CONTRACT! How about limiting service contracts to a period of only 1 year? This 3 year Bell standard is so beyond the practice of contract law I’m left speechless.

    What happens when your initial term for a lease is up – you automatically go on a ‘month to month’ contract. How can this industry not be subject to the same consumer laws?

    How about eliminating all contract periods and asking businesses such as Bell to actually provide a standard of pricing and customer service that would keep their clients happy and not wanting to terminate!

    I/we NEED to have a voice on this issue. I beg someone to take this fight to the media, I beg for a lawyer who feels that taking on this issue is well worth the time and effort. Finding millions of supporters would be as easy as posting a blog. We NEED to change the law, we NEED to be protected, we NEED a government who listens and allows only businesses who conduct themselves properly to exist in this country.

    Yes, we live in a country where as consumers we can choose where and to what companies we want to spend our money on, BUT not if our hands our tied and our voices silenced!

    Everyone always asks when someone else complains about an unfair political agenda “Well, did you vote?” My answer going forward will be – “Well, I meant to but I was on hold with Bell for 8 hours on voting day trying to figure out my bill”!!

    Someone ACTUALLY help us!

  18. A policy should be in writing and an explanation to a diverse contract should always be in writing…so..communicate by E-mail always. Would this not be documentation which can be used by both party’s.

  19. Client in B.C. suffers from brain injury and is on disability pension. He has Telus landline and doesn’t use cell phone. Doesn’t know how to use a cell phone.

    Bell Mobility somehow made a verbal “contract” with this disabled, elderly man for a cell phone he didn’t want. On December 1, 2010, he was charged $35 “connection fee.” Four days later, he was charged $400 for a “Termination Liability Charge.”

    Bill received for absolutely nothing in return: $490.94.

    Who’s running this company, the Hells Angels?

  20. According to my layperson’s understanding of contract law: where a contract is open to two different but equally probable interpretations, it is interpreted against the author, especially, if there is a power imbalance between the parties (“verba fortius accipiuntur contra proferentem”).

    In my opinion, even for verbal agreements Bell is the author (of the service being offered to customers) and most certainly there is a power imbalance (unless you also have tens of thousands of employees and a team of lawyers).

  21. I have been a Bell customer for years now and I never had a problem, except for their high prices for marginal service at best.

    Since Bell came out with their E-billing system, I stopped getting my monthly bills, I was paying the agreed upon price of the plan that the customer service rep sold me on.

    I finally received an E-bill of $738.44, and when I called to find out why it was so astronomical, they informed me that I was over on my usage.

    The “verbal” agreement the customer service rep and I had agreed on was that if I went over on the new plan, I would have to simply pay the difference between my old plan and the new one. Now Bell tells me this is not acceptable and they will not honour this.

    I have started a Facebook group to get 1,000,000 people to sign up. If each person donates $1, then we consumers will have enough power to challenge Bell Canada and the Crown in a court of law to change the telecom laws.

    If you have been wronged by Bell and feel powerless to do anything join the cause.

  22. I hear you…but if you give Bell a couple of months, you can cancel for breach of ‘said’ contract, verbal or otherwise.

    I’ve been fighting with them for a few years. Problem is, I’ve already gone to Videotron and came back. They are both ‘not nice’ 😉

    We need someone to fight these companies on our behalf!!! We need guidance to do this. Your forum and others like yours are too long to be ignored….how do we strike back! Instead of fueling the flames, help us!!!

  23. I have a suggestion. BELL are thieves and they are stealing from hard working Canadians. It’s time to leave them.

    Everyone, start taking your business elsewhere and start recording your conversations. Make sure you state the date, the person’s name and how you are. If they want to start recording our calls and then renege on their own verbal contracts, they are dirt.

    In fact, I sent back a receiver by Purolator and they keep charging me for the device. They also keep calling and harassing me, even though there were notes on the file that the device was received.

    They are given carte blanche to do and treat customers any way they want without accountability. Sounds like the Harper government.

    They have told me that they are disconnecting my services when there is nothing I owe, as I pay my monthly bill. My credit score is affected by this. How dare they?

    The Better Business Bureau needs to be contacted by everyone with problems. BELL needs to know we will not put up with their BS any longer.

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