How does this appliance repair firm stay in business?

Has your fridge stopped working? Has your dishwasher broken down?

Appliance Repair Guys. Service4Appliances. If you see these names, think twice about making an appointment.

Both names are used by a Toronto-area company with a reputation for unreliable repairs, high prices and unfriendly, even rude, customer service.

Check my Star column for links to the Better Business Bureau’s consumer alerts, plus Homestar’s low ratings by customers.

When I contacted owner Dan Vidoser, he refused to let me quote him because he didn’t like a previous article in the Hamilton Spectator.

Here’s a story from Marsha, who paid Appliance Repair Guys to fix her dryer, which was making a squeaky noise. The technician “fixed” it and charged $320. Two days later, the machine was making a different noise.

The technician came back, did something else and charged $80 for the service call (after saying there would be no charge because she’d filled out a warranty form).

The machine sounded even worse afterward. But all she got was a runaround.

“At the end of multiple calls, the company refused to do anything,” Marsha says. “I’m out $400 and I can’t get my money back.”

She initially paid with a debit card after being told no credit cards were allowed. She was allowed to use a credit card for the second visit, since she was out of town.

However, CIBC Visa would not give her a refund for the $80 service call, telling her she had to pursue her dispute directly with the company.

After posting a review at Yelp, where you can also find other customer laments, she tells me she’s shocked to see what happened.

“This company has ZERO accountability. How can they get away with this, other than saying that we seem to be stupid consumers?”

Here’s what I’d say. When you can’t wash or dry your laundry, keep your food cold or cook it at high heat, you’re anxious to get your appliances working again.

You find an attractive website for a repair firm that promises same-day service and has a few testimonials from anonymous customers. You’re too rushed to do any research and assume you’ll be treated fairly if your appliance can’t be fixed.

Next time, ask your friends for referrals. Check with the manufacturer to find authorized repair firms. Go to the BBB, Homestars and Yelp to find consumer complaints.

When you let technicians into your home, you’re at their mercy. They can take your machines apart and quote outrageous prices to put them back together again.

Don’t let up your guard, since the consequences can be costly.

How to be taken seriously when you complain

I get emails every day from people who have been wronged. They want an apology, a refund, compensation — and sometimes, they want revenge.

I help them reach the right executives at a company who will listen, take action and find answers. This usually ends in a settlement.

Here’s my frustration. Some people aren’t good at advocating for themselves. They commit self-sabotage.

I have some tips on how to get better results.

Be professional and businesslike.

You’re talking to busy executives, so don’t waste their time. Cut to the chase. Summarize the problem and say what you want the company to do for you.

Many of the complaints I receive are WAY TOO LONG. People spend a lot of time talking about what happened and when. That’s tedious.

You’re not writing a book. One to two pages is enough.

Don’t get angry or use insults.

Be calm and courteous. Start by saying how much you like doing business with the company. Get the executives on your side and they’ll pay more attention.

Even when you’re frustrated, try not to let it show. Never use threats. Don’t swear.

Finally, accusations aren’t helpful. Avoid using words like fraud, theft and deception. You may end up with a legal letter telling you to cease and desist.

Focus on your priorities.

Don’t talk about every little thing that went wrong during a bad trip or home renovation. Edit yourself. Pick the top two or three issues and ignore the rest.

I’ve seen some people write lists, pinpointing as many as 15 things they want fixed. That’s overkill. Five should be the absolute maximum.

Make sure to give your contact information.

If you send an email, don’t just give your email address. Companies want to see your home address and phone number, with details on how to reach you during the day. They often prefer to call you back, rather than write to you.

Use short paragraphs.

When I forward emails from readers to companies, I break them up, using a sentence or two at a time. That’s easier to read than long paragraphs.

Bullet points work well in making your points. So does bold print. Always leave some white space on the page.

This advice will improve your chances of getting what you want. I wish you success in your communication campaigns.

Protect your car from diminished value after accident

I wrote a Toronto Star column about problems getting the full resale value for a car that has been repaired after an accident.

In the column, I said that Viraf Baliwalla of the Automall Network in Toronto had come up with a diminished value calculator that could help you decide whether to sue the other driver for your loss.

Until now, there have been no court cases in Ontario to test this approach. But Baliwalla told me about one of my readers, for whom he acted as expert witness in court. Here’s how he described it in his blog.

Mary bought a demo SUV in 2010 from a new car dealer. The vehicle was a manufacturer’s executive-driven vehicle for approximately 15,434 km before the dealer bought it for sale. Since then, the dealer added about 1,300 km.

Mary used her vehicle for work, as well as carting her kids from place to place. She was adamant the vehicle be accident-free. The salesperson assured her it was.

She didn’t feel the need to have the salesperson’s assurance put in writing, nor have it inspected independently. The bill of sale said the balance of factory warranty was in place.

After driving it for two years, Mary noticed rust developing on one of the body panels. When she took it in for repair at a different dealer, she was told the warranty would not apply because the vehicle had been in a previous accident.

She contacted the original dealer to lodge a complaint, but felt she was not getting much satisfaction. She took the vehicle to a body shop to identify the damage and started a small claims court claim against the dealer.

The dealer said the accident must have happened while the car was in Mary’s possession. Mary said neither she nor her husband had ever been involved in an accident.

Further, the vehicle’s history report showed no claims, estimates or accident repairs against the vehicle, meaning it would have been fixed “on the sly” without reporting it to the insurance company or police.

The judge felt both sides were genuine in their belief they did not cause the accident. He suggested the dealer repair it at an estimated cost of $2,239.

The dealer obliged and fixed the car. Mary attempted to settle with the dealer for diminished value as well, but the dealer was not willing to entertain her request.

At the hearing on diminished value, Mary had a paralegal representing her. I was her expert witness to discuss how much less the vehicle was actually worth when she purchased it.

The judge said Mary had sustained diminished value. He felt both sides were innocent and the vehicle was probably involved in an accident before the dealership received it.

He awarded Mary $2,750 in diminished value and $600 in costs. But when her legal fees were factored in, she more or less broke even.

Mary pushed this issue to the limit out of principle. Thanks to her efforts, there is now a court case in Ontario where a judge has accepted the notion of diminished value and awarded accordingly.

After a long break, I’m back

I gave a speech last September to a group of personal finance bloggers. I said having a blog was like feeding a hungry bear that never got satiated. Then, I took a rest from feeding the bear.

Though I stopped posting new material, I never stopped moderating comments at my blog. I want to let readers know they’re not alone with their complaints.

I’ll try to keep the momentum going in the future. Meanwhile, you can always send messages through my website and get a response.

February is a busy time. I’ll be speaking at four Toronto libraries this month, so please drop by if you can.

There’s the Barbara Frum branch on Feb. 19 (at 2 pm), Richview on Feb. 20 (7 pm), Don Mills on Feb. 26 (6.30 pm) and St. Lawrence on March 1 (2 pm).

How NOT to sell a car or get a free credit report

In my job, I’m always hearing cautionary stories about consumers falling into traps they didn’t expect. It’s hard to do research about every pitfall that might exist.

John Pettitt, for example, ignored one vital step when selling his car privately. He didn’t insist on proof that the new owner had changed the ownership papers.

As a result, he was hit with towing and storage charges for the vehicle long after the sale. The bill he was asked to pay ($798) was equal to the sale proceeds.

I wrote about his dilemma and followed up with a second column after the towing company agreed to waive the bill.

Automotive writer Jil McIntosh covered this issue here. She added a warning about personal safety when selling a car privately.

Earlier this year, an Ontario man was murdered when he advertised his truck online and took it to a potential buyer.

If you agree to meet someone, make sure you’re going to a busy public place and never go alone. Ask for the person’s name and phone number beforehand and then call back to see if the number is accurate.

It’s not ideal to have a buyer come to your house, but if it must happen, don’t be on your own. Have a friend or family member there with you.

Close your garage door so no one can see inside, and if possible, find another place to park other cars you own.

Ask to see identification when you meet the person and look at his driver’s license, including the expiry date, if you’re going to let him test-drive the car. Honest buyers shouldn’t have any issues with proving they’re legitimate.

As for credit reports, readers often think they have to pay to get one. While Equifax and TransUnion sell instant online access to credit reports, mail delivery is always free.

Access to credit scores, however, is never free. The credit score is a profit centre for the reporting agencies, as is the sale of monthly credit monitoring services.

A reader named Ian signed up for Equifax’s Complete Advantage credit monitoring plan at $15 a month, since he could get his credit report and credit score included at no charge.

More than 18 months after trying to cancel, he’s still paying for the service and asked me for help getting rid of it. I’m sure that Equifax will release him shortly.

You can find Ian’s story below. It’s a compelling yarn about the company’s bureaucratic practices and disdain for personal privacy in a dispute.

How about a course on Investing for Beginners?

You’re unhappy with the investing advice you get from your bank or broker, but you don’t feel confident about your knowledge and skills. Maybe it’s time to take an introductory course.

Learning about investing can help you become a do-it-yourself investor with an online brokerage account. You can start buying individual stocks and signing up for dividend reinvestment plans.

When you know more about investing, you can also have better conversations with financial advisers. It helps to understand the lingo and be able to describe exactly what you want.

My nine-week course at the University of Toronto campus starts on Sept. 12. Here’s a link for those who want to register or recommend it to others.

It’s the eighth year I’ve taught the course. We had more than 80 students enrolled last fall, a record number, in a big theatre-style classroom. There’s always room for more people.

You’ll learn about markets, products, advisers and regulators with me and interesting guest speakers. Mary Anne Wiley, head of iShares Canada, is booked for this fall. Doug Melville, head of OBSI (Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments), may appear again as he has in recent years.

Each week, I prepare detailed handouts for students and send emails with interesting links. And I’m always ready to answer your questions.

There are no exams or written essays, but a few hands-on learning projects are assigned each week for those who want to try them.

Here’s what John, a student in last year’s class, had to say at the end:

Ellen, I’ve enjoyed your lectures very much; I know I’ll miss my Thursday evenings learning about investing and taking control of my investment portfolio.

I’ve expected my broker to look after my stuff. Truth is, they care more about their MERs.

It is somewhat scary to take over the portfolio, but certainly I think that I, like any interested and responsible investor, must overcome “the fear” and start looking at the portfolio on a regular basis and ask questions.

And those MERs? Oh yes, they are in my cross-hairs! I’ve got a meeting
with my broker next week.

John is referring to the Management-Expense Ratio, a shorthand term for the cost of investing in mutual funds. MERs are fairly high in Canada, attracting the attention of regulators.

Here’s a link to a discussion paper on mutual fund fees. And here’s my column on the need for change.

Competition Tribunal releasing surcharge decision July 23

Canadian retailers would like to make customers pay surcharges on some credit card transactions. They told the Competition Bureau that credit card issuers were jacking up the fees that merchants had to pay for premium credit cards.

After several years of study, the Competition Tribunal will release its decision next week. I published a blog post in May, giving both sides of the story.

The Canadian Bankers’ Association (CBA), which represents credit card issuers, is trying to spin the story in its favour. Here are comments from media relations director Maura Drew-Lytle, sent to me in case I planned to cover the release.


The federal Competition Tribunal is considering whether or not to eliminate two credit card rules which currently benefit consumers. We have now been told that this long-awaited decision will be released publicly on Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

Here is some background information that may be helpful if you decide to cover the Competition Tribunal’s decision. The outcome could have a profound impact on our well-functioning credit card system in Canada, how and where Canadians use their cards and the rewards programs they have come to value.

Background on Competition Tribunal Hearings
In December of 2010, the Competition Bureau announced that it had filed an application with the Competition Tribunal to strike down two credit card rules as anti-competitive.

The first, the honour-all-cards rule, requires that if a merchant says it accepts a Visa or a MasterCard branded credit card, then it must accept all credit cards of that brand.

The second is the no-surcharging rule, which prohibits merchants from adding an extra charge – a “retail checkout fee” – to customers paying with a Visa or MasterCard credit card.

The Competition Bureau filed an application with the Competition Tribunal to strike down these rules, which it calls “restrictive and anti-competitive rules imposed on merchants who accept their credit cards.”

The Competition Tribunal, made up of three independent panel members, heard the case in the spring of 2012, taking testimony from a witness list that included merchants, credit card companies, economic experts and the banking industry. The CBA was an intervener in the case on behalf of credit card issuers.

The banking industry believes that these rules are important protections for consumers when they use credit cards and overturning these rules could have a very negative impact on how consumers use their credit cards.

Honour-All-Cards Rule
Let’s assume for a moment that the honour-all-cards rule is struck down.

You’ve taken your family out for dinner and when you pull out your Visa card to pay, you’re told that while the restaurant has a sign in the window showing they accept Visa, they don’t accept the kind of Visa card you have.

Or you could be in the grocery store with a cart full of groceries. You wait patiently in the checkout line but, when you offer your MasterCard as payment, you’re told that the store accepts some MasterCards but not yours.

Eliminating this rule would cause a great deal of uncertainty and frustration for consumers, because they may not know whether their credit card would be accepted until they finish their shopping and try to pay for their purchases.

On top of all that, the card that consumers use most to accumulate rewards points may not be accepted as much any more.

Eliminating the honour-all-cards rule could also hurt retailers. The Consumers’ Association of Canada did public opinion research and found that if retailers began accepting only certain types of Visa and MasterCard credit cards, 79 per cent of Canadians would simply go to a different retailer.

No-Surcharging Rule
Overturning the no-surcharging rule would allow retailers to add an extra charge, a “retail checkout fee,” to a purchase made with a Visa or MasterCard credit card.

Retailers are already allowed to offer a discount for other forms of payment, but very few do. The Consumers’ Association of Canada is strongly opposed to eliminating the no-surcharging rule, as are 84 per cent of Canadians according to their research.

Australia provides a good example of what can happen when surcharging on credit card purchases is allowed.

In 2003, Australian regulators allowed surcharging in the hopes that retailers would pass on the cost savings to consumers. But that hasn’t happened.

In fact, some retailers are imposing surcharges that are much higher than the cost of their credit card acceptance, sometimes double according to consumer groups in that country.

So Australians are paying twice for retailers to accept credit card payments.

Retailers Benefit from Credit Card Acceptance
There’s one thing that has been missing in the whole debate about the cost of credit card acceptance, and that’s the many benefits that credit cards give to retailers.

Credit cards provide retailers with fast, guaranteed payment that can reduce lines at the check-out. If every payment transaction took an extra 30 seconds, that would add another 27 million hours of staff time each year.

Retailers have many expenses that are part of their costs of doing business: rent, wages, utilities, supplies, technology and a fee to accept credit cards, to name a few.

But few people know that cash is one of the most expensive forms of payment for retailers, if you include time and effort spent handling, counting, reconciling and depositing cash every day, not to mention higher security costs, such as armoured transport and safety concerns for a store’s employees.

Credit card payments allow merchants to offer customers credit without taking on the risk. New payment options, such as contactless cards, also benefit merchants and make it easier and faster for customers to make purchases.

Canada has a very sophisticated credit card industry, with a lot of choice and competition for consumers. If either the rule on no-surcharging or on honour-all-cards is eliminated, the retail experience for Canadians could be drastically changed, and not for the better.

We will be commenting when the Competition Tribunal decision comes out and have spokespeople available for interviews then.

Thanks, Maura


Why did Aeroplan eliminate expiry date for points?

The announcement took everyone by surprise. Aeroplan was killing its seven-year redemption deadline for points, scheduled to start on Jan. 1, 2014.

Aeroplan’s sponsor Aimia mentioned the cancellation of the harsh redemption policy in a June 27 news release. It also unveiled a new credit card partner (TD), but only if previous partner CIBC didn’t try to match the TD deal by Aug. 9.

Did Aeroplan decide not to date-stamp points because of a nationwide class action lawsuit by Merchant Law Group?

When I asked that question on Twitter, I heard from Aeroplan spokeswoman Christa Poole. She said members really disliked the deadline. The closer it came, the unhappier they were. The class action simply reflected that animosity.

A senior executive said the same thing to Star columnist Adam Mayers:

The unhappiness became clear during research into the current changes, says Kevin O’Brien, Aeroplan’s chief commercial officer.

“That one was huge,’ he says. “Aeroplan rewards play an aspirational role for members. They accumulate points to do something special and like to plan ahead. So the expiry thing was a big deal.”

However, there’s some bad news for Aeroplan members. They will need more points for business class and first class reward flights to Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.

The increase adds up to 20 per cent, coming on top of another increase in award redemption levels put in place in 2011, says The Points Guy website.

With a strong competitive market, it is about time Aeroplan cancels mileage expiration. Fortunately, more and more programs are going in the direction of “no mileage expiry.”

JetBlue just did the same thing and Delta doesn’t have mileage expiration either. However the 12-month expiry policy is still active. Members will have to continue to earn miles or redeem them each year in order not to lose their miles.

As an Aeroplan member, I’m glad I don’t have to make a mad dash to cash in my precious miles. But I’m not thrilled with the increase in redemption levels.

Like most collectors, I’m aspiring to take longer flights in more luxurious seats. This announcement means I’ll need more time to save more points than I needed before.

Waiting for a decision on credit card surcharges

Canada’s Competition Tribunal will soon release a ruling on a case against Visa and MasterCard, started in 2010.

The credit card companies prevent retailers from refusing to accept “premium” credit cards that offer reward miles, points and other benefits for consumers, but for which merchants pay higher processing fees.

Some retailers, such as Sam James in Toronto, have switched to a cash-only format to avoid paying high credit card fees that hurt their profits.

If the tribunal sides with retailers that want to pass on credit card fees directly to customers, Canadians could be hit with big surcharges on purchases, warns the Consumers’ Association of Canada.

Here is a guest post by Angie Picardo, a staff writer with Nerd Wallet, about how surcharge fees may be coming to Canada.


There are three rules that both Visa and MasterCard enforce for retailers opting to accept their cards for payment.

1. Retailers must accept all cards

If a company opts to accept either MasterCard or Visa, they cannot differentiate between the types of card accepted. For example, retailers cannot specify that they will accept a MasterCard SmartLine Platinum but refuse a National Bank Allure MasterCard.

2. Retailers cannot discriminate

If a customer opts to use a credit card with a higher card acceptance fee, that card must still be accepted as a suitable means of payment and the customer cannot be treated differently for deciding to choose that specific card.

3. Retailers cannot require a surcharge

Retailers are not allowed to independently require additional surcharges to customers who pay with Visa or MasterCard.

What’s the problem with that?

The driving force in the case against Visa and MasterCard is that they hold a near monopoly over credit cards in Canada, as both companies together comprise about 92 per cent of the market.

As Visa and MasterCard release “premium” credit cards, most of the cost is subsidized by merchants. The Competition Bureau estimates that high transaction costs result in businesses paying for about $5 billion in hidden fees annually.

Canada is not the first country to tackle credit card transaction costs and surcharging.

In the United States, Visa and MasterCard faced similar charges and opted to settle out of court in July 2012, allowing retailers to offer surcharges.

It’s predicted that few businesses will impose surcharges, since they have integrated transaction costs into their prices. Also, they’re worried about scaring off customers with increased fees.

In Australia, credit card surcharges were allowed in 2003. Several businesses took advantage and started implementing unreasonable surcharges to compensate for transaction costs.

Responding to an outcry from consumers, the Reserve Bank in Australia is giving power back to credit card companies and allowing Visa and MasterCard to put limits on acceptable surcharge rates.

Although hearings for the Canadian case against Visa and MasterCard have ended, a formal decision has yet to be issued and a report is still in the works.

Recently, Visa increased its transaction rates to merchants by one third and issued a new “ultra premium” card, which comes with higher fees for businesses than the premium cards already on the market in Canada.

MasterCard followed Visa, increasing transaction costs to merchants by 20 per cent.

Consumers, merchants and credit card companies are waiting for the Competition Tribunal’s ruling to decide on their next play.

Angie Picardo is a staff writer for NerdWallet, a personal finance website that helps consumers save money and make smarter decisions about their personal finances, travel plans, or higher education.

Air Canada should improve customer service

I don’t have any complaints about the service on Air Canada flights. But I find the airline often falls short in trying to resolve problems that crop up after a flight.

Years ago, my mother and I waited more than two hours to get our baggage after a one-hour flight from Montreal to Toronto. The aircraft had gone back to the hangar by mistake with many suitcases still on board.

When we complained about the extra cost of parking for my husband who was picking us up, we were told to write a letter to Montreal. This was a nuisance. Why couldn’t Air Canada just hand out $5 or $10 gift cards to us on the spot?

I went to the trouble of writing to Montreal, but still didn’t get any compensation for the error. Then, I complained to the airline’s media contact, resulting in flowers for my mother and Aeroplan points for me.

Air Canada still acts like a monopoly — smug, slow to respond and aiming for customer satisfaction rather than delight. It can afford to live with criticism, since it has locked up many long-haul routes that its domestic rivals can’t offer.

While most companies answer emails within days. Air Canada promises to respond within three to five weeks.

Lost baggage complaints are handled by a call centre in India, which isn’t popular with Canadian customers. Check out Sylvia Duckworth’s lament about her missing laptop at her blog.

After writing columns about Air Canada, I started hearing from readers. Kay-Anne, for example, was upset not to get an apology for poor service when flying home from Antarctica, with a stop in Chile.

“Each time, any response from them came in an envelope with a return address from their head office for customer service in Calgary,” she said.

“My husband and I were so displeased with the lack of satisfaction that when we were next in Calgary, visiting our son, we went to the address listed on the correspondence. We hoped to speak to an actual person, who might at least acknowledge that the company had failed our small group miserably.

“We had great difficulty finding the address and drove by where it should have been several times. Finally, I went into the pharmacy, which seemed to be at the correct address and asked where Air Canada’s customer service office was.

“The lady sheepishly told me I was at the right place. Air Canada Customer Service is a post office box number in a Shopper’s Drug Mart in Calgary.

“You can interpret from our experience and those of others you have written about that Air Canada, in fact, provides no support to customers with genuine concerns.”

WestJet has built its business on showing special care to its “guests.” (No one refers to them as customers.) I rarely get any WestJet complaints and when I do, I find they’re resolved in an instant.

Porter Airlines tries to excel by offering free snacks and cappuccino at its Toronto Island terminal and free wine on board. Passengers feel pampered finding leather seats throughout the plane, not just in . executive class.

Air Canada needs to respond to complaints more quickly. It needs to value its customers’ energy and time spent straightening out messes. It needs to appoint an ombudsman (a position that once existed and was wiped out) to do independent reviews of disputes.

This large airline is protected from domestic competition on many routes. Let’s put pressure on it to choose excellence, rather than mediocrity, in helping customers with their problems.