Do you have an electricity contract?

When Ontario’s electricity market was deregulated in 2002, almost one million people signed fixed-price contracts with Direct Energy, Ontario Energy Savings Corp. and other electricity marketers. The government later pulled the plug on deregulation and the fixed price didn’t take effect. But the contracts are still in place.

The five-year contracts come up for renewal, starting in May, and you may find your contract is automatically rolled over for another year unless you take steps to cancel it.

Here are your options:

* Do nothing. You’ll be in a one-year contract at more than 9 cents a kilowatt-hour.

* Sign a new five-year contract with your current supplier at a rate of 8.8 to 8.9 cents a kilowatt-hour.

* Tell your current supplier you don’t want to renew and sign a five-year contract with the lowest-cost supplier at 8.49 cents a kilowatt-hour.

* Go back to your local utility’s regulated price plan. The rate is 5.3 cents for the first 600 kilowatt-hours and 6.2 cents for the rest (averaging about 5.8 cents).

Why sign a contract when the regulated price plan (RPP) is much lower? Here’s a response from Ian MacLellan of Energyshop.com:

To compare the contract with the RPP, you should deduct about 1.5 cents for the rebates that a customer gets on a contract but are already factored into the RPP. So, you’re looking at 5.8 cents for the RPP and 7 cents to 7.49 cents for the contract.

Locking into a fixed-price contract is still a valid decision, but the considerations are:

* What will happen to electricity rates after the October election?

* How fast will rates increase with rising oil and gas prices? What about the Auditor-General’s report that electricity from the Bruce Nuclear plant will cost 7.1 cents?

The message we want to get out to people is this: Read your renewal notice carefully. And do your homework before getting into a new contract.

Watch out for negative option billing

You might think this was outlawed in Canada after Rogers Cable tried to get customers to pay for new specialty TV channels in 1995, unless they said they didn’t want them. There was a huge uproar and Rogers backed down.

In fact, the federal government never passed a law to get rid of this marketing practice. So, federally-regulated banks and telecom firms can sign you up for products and services you didn’t ask for and keep billing you for them.

Are you still paying for credit card balance insurance or telephone calling features that were supposed to be free for a few months? If you don’t say no, you’re on the hook. The onus is on you to opt out.

The Ontario government did pass a law in August 2005 to outlaw negative option billing, but it applies only to contracts signed after that date. Suppose you have a long-standing furnace protection plan or fixed-price natural gas plan. Unless you take specific action to get out when the contract expires, the company will roll it over for another year.

Health and fitness clubs may also indulge in this practice. They insist that you pay with automatic debits from a credit card or bank account, so they can keep deducting your payments long after your contract is up.

Pay attention to your bills and don’t let marketers “opt you in” by your inaction.

Why not Canadian Tire or Wal-Mart Blues?

My posting, Bell Blues, has attracted great activity over the weekend. I’m responding to E.J. Wonder’s comment that it seems one-sided. Why not go after other companies with customer service problems?

First, I listen to readers. When I get many complaints, I know something’s wrong. Bell has always attracted a large volume of protests, along the lines of “I can’t believe this isn’t being fixed and why can’t I reach anyone?” But I’m finding the number going up, not down, despite management’s claims of consistent progress.

Second, I also respond to the “pain factor.” It’s not just the number of complaints, but the anguish behind them. When readers talk about hours and hours spent in fruitless pursuit of a resolution, that’s when I prick up my ears. I think smart companies empathize with those who take the time to complain. They’re happy for feedback that helps them get better. Also, smart companies offer something tangible (e.g. bill credits or gift certificates) to tell customers they appreciate the value of their time.

Third, I look to see if there’s a complaint resolution system in the company. Is there a single point of contact? Is there a complaint officer or internal ombudsman? Bell doesn’t have one, nor does Rogers or Telus. The only place to send an appeal is to the CRTC in Ottawa. But this regulatory agency doesn’t regulate many services that Bell provides (e.g. Internet, cell phones and long-distance). Its website is vast and often confusing.

So, that’s why I’m singing the Bell Blues and so are many readers. But check the comments here and you’ll find some positive ones.

I hope Bell does improve its service. If so, I’ll happily move on. There’s never a shortage of topics. And, let me say this isn’t a personal crusade. I have home phone service with Bell and have no complaints. (Rogers and Yak do the rest.)

Who’s that knocking at your door?

If they tell you about great savings on natural gas or electricity and they want to look at your utility bills, shut the door….quickly.

I’m not against locking in a long-term price for energy (and I did it myself once), but I don’t trust door-to-door sellers of energy contracts. Too often, according to what I hear, they misrepresent who they are and what you get if you sign. You don’t have time to do any background research and make up your mind on whether it’s a good time to buy.

Before you agree to anything, check the Ontario Energy Board reports on consumer complaints relating to gas and electricity retailers. You can check each company and see what kind of complaints it has received.

Also, you have to compare the prices you’re quoted with your local utility’s price. If you go to Energyshop you can see whether you would have been better off locking in or staying with your utility. Because of the falling price of gas in the past 18 months, Enbridge Gas customers who didn’t lock in have been ahead of those who did.

Insuring your insurance

Can you go overboard buying insurance? Check out this humour piece in the Walrus about a fellow who wanted to prepare for everything.

Here’s a place to talk about your experiences with buying insurance, comparing products, reading the fine print and making claims. How do you deal with insurance agents and brokers? Have you had any run-ins with claims adjusters?

Insurance is often pushed by people who aren’t in the insurance business, such as bankers, travel agents, realtors and car dealers. Do they know enough about what they’re selling to give you a proper overview?

What makes you mad?

Here’s a place to vent, rant, blow off steam, express your frustration. What happens to customer service when companies use outsourced call centres and technology that manages customer relations — but leaves it depersonalized and not accountable?

To kick it off, here’s a complaint about a driver’s license that got got lost in the mail:

Our daughter is an English teacher in Taiwan. In February, she came for a short visit and applied for a renewal of her driver’s license. This week, I went to the office to check on the status of her license (it has been now 8 weeks since she applied). The woman there called the issuing office, only to tell me she could not tell me anything. I was given a number to call. This is what we were told:

The license had been mailed out to us. (We checked the address and yes, they did have a correct address.) They could not give us any more information. We further learned that if a license cannot be delivered and is returned back to their office, it is destroyed. BUT they could not tell us this was the case, since they don’t keep track of it. Their system doesn’t allow them to record cases of lost/stolen licenses during the mailing process, either.

My daughter will have to apply again by fax. And if she doesn’t do it fast, she will have to pay the administration fees again. It will have to be mailed to Taiwan (or to the Czech Republic, where we are meeting with her this summer). But they will not mail it to any address in Ontario.

When I reminded the by now quite abrasive and impatient clerk that somebody else might be using her new license, I was told: Well, report it!!

I have a problem with this. A Driver’s License is one of those documents accepted as ID documents. We pay for renewal – could not/should not we be guaranteed a safe delivery of this ID? Should not the drivers’ licenses be handled with a little more caution and should not they be a little more secured?

Perils of online banking

If you lose money from your online account because of fraud, the bank can blame you for not being responsible with your computer and decide not to compensate you for your monetary loss. This is what happened to Jerry Whelan, whose dispute with Manulife Bank was covered in this column (March 8).

He’s asked the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments to investigate his case, but could be waiting a while. I’d like to hear from others who’ve had the same treatment or who have opinions of what the banks are doing in such cases.

Protesting works

Last weekend, we went to see the The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for best foreign film. My husband and I noticed several vertical lines on the screen, so we decided to complain. We and a few others who complained got free passes to another film. Those who didn’t got nothing. The theatre (Canada Square) knew the print was scratched, but couldn’t find a replacement.

Readers often tell me they decided to protest something after reading one of my columns.

I am sure you have already written about gift certificates with expiry dates on them. I just wanted to share that I was so ticked off when I was told my Blockbuster gift certificate was no longer valid that I sent a firm, not rude, e-mail of complaint – not really expecting much. They quickly e-mailed me back to say a new card was in the mail and, sure enough, I received it a few weeks later. Buoyed by my success, I tried the same thing with Dairy Queen, which also sent me a replacement gift certificate. Protesting works.

Women and money

Suze Orman

Suze Orman is the diva of Saturday night television, preaching about money management as an essential life skill for mid-life women drowning in debt. She can be annoying: That helmet of frosted platinum hair, the whiter-than-white teeth, the habit of calling people “girlfriend” (and “boyfriend” for the occasional man who calls in) and her love of referring to herself in the third person. I also marvel at the way she can psychoanalyze women a minute after they start their stories. “You don’t really love him, do you?” she’ll tell a caller who’s only just mentioned a male partner. (She recently came out as a lesbian in a New York Times magazine article, a brave move for someone in the public eye.)

But I do like some of her psychological insights in her latest book, Women and Money. Recounting some of her own misadventures with money, she talks about how woman often devalue themselves and treat themselves as a commodity to be priced by others. On her show, she constantly tells women they’re putting themselves “on sale,” meaning discounting their true talents and worth. She’s getting at an important truth when it comes to money management: You can’t save it if you don’t earn it. You have to believe in yourself and boost your value in the marketplace, be it the labour market or the marriage market. It’s no coincidence that women who don’t value themselves end up with men who don’t value them either.

Suze pushes women into taking care of their finances following a five-month plan she lays out. Unfortunately, much of her information is relevant only to US readers. And she keeps sending readers to her website, where information is for sale and not freely offered. Even the book’s back cover is controversial, since she’s made a deal with a stockbroker for readers who open accounts. She sells more books by offering this $100 discount coupon with TD Ameritrade, which makes some people suspicious.

Her advice is basic, almost too simple, in some readers’ opinion, but it’s meant for absolute beginners. And most people seem to like it, judging the comments at Amazon.com.

“I’ve already made a few day-to-day decisions in order to re-direct a much larger part of my monthly income to retirement planning. I took Suze’s advice and added extra $$ to my mortgage payment this month and opened up a savings account with TD AMERITRADE with automatic withdrawals. It meant that I didn’t buy my teenage son the $130 shoes he asked for last week, like I’ve done many times before. It also meant that I didn’t lend my good friend the $250 she asked for “again” last Friday, even though she eventually pays it back..but with zero interest, of course. Finally it also meant that my husband I didn’t agree to go to Vegas with some friends in a few months. Vegas will now be an ANNUAL trip, allowing me to put an extra $2000 per year into savings. I imagine there will be plenty of time to go to Vegas when I am retired. Okay, so I’m taking Suze’s advice and taking care of ME now so that later on…it won’t be ME living in poverty. Thanks Suze for writing this book and making me keenly aware of the fact that I needed to wake up and get with the program in terms of retirement planning.”