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Rosanna von Sacken's three-year contract reads "All text messages received are FREE*" The asterisk footnote specifies this does not apply to "premium" messages. ((CBC))

A B.C. mother with three teenagers is speaking out about how Rogers Wireless cost her money she didn't expect to pay by arbitrarily changing the terms of her contract for her children's cellphones. 

"I'm not happy with the situation," said Rosanna von Sacken. "I want Rogers to be held accountable for what they said they would do."

In September of last year, von Sacken signed on for a Rogers three-year Student My10 plan at a Rogers kiosk at Costco in Port Coquitlam, B.C. The plan allows von Sacken's three teenagers — one boy and two girls — unlimited calls and texts to and from 10 selected numbers.

The contract she signed at the time stipulated she would be charged for calls from other numbers, beyond a certain limit, but it clearly states, "All text messages received are free." The contract also makes no reference to the possibility that those terms might change.

New fees applied to "free" service

In July of this year, Rogers introduced a new fee of 15 cents per incoming text message for all customers who did not have a specific plan or bundle for text messaging. Those charges were applied to von Sacken's account, despite her contract — which says incoming texts are free.

"A contract is a contract," said von Sacken. "I expect Rogers to abide by the contract and honour the rates and fees that were sold to me at the point of sale."

Von Sacken said when she called Rogers to complain, she was put on hold and told a manager would call her back, but she said no one did. She then complained to the Better Business Bureau.

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Rosanna von Sacken's son Jamie says it's impossible for him to control all of his incoming texts. ((CBC))

BBB records show Rogers responded to that complaint by saying, "Mrs. von Sacken's account has not changed, at the time of activation Rogers did not have a charge for receiving text messages, that was changed."

"They basically said we are charging you 15 cents per message that's the way it is," said von Sacken. "It certainly brought back memories of negative billing — where the customers basically don't have a choice."

Von Sacken's teenage girls generate thousands of texts every month, to and from their 10 unlimited numbers. Her 16-year-old daughter sent and received close to 6,000 texts in one month — that's 200 per day — to and from those numbers.

Von Sacken said the numbers illustrate just how difficult it is for parents to police text messaging by teenagers.

"You can't control how many text messages the kids receive," said von Sacken.

"Once their phone number is given out to their friends, they have absolutely no control as to who is going to send them text messages."

Her son Jamie works part-time while attending school and is supposed to pay for his own extra cellphone charges. He said trying to control incoming texts has been very difficult.

"It gets pretty big, pretty fast," said Jamie von Sacken, "When this contract is up, I am leaving [Rogers]."

"If I withdraw from the contract early, I would have to pay a penalty of $20 per month, per phone, for the rest of the three-year term — which is another year and a half," said Rosanna von Sacken

"Every Rogers customer should be checking their contract and comparing it to their monthly bills, because Rogers is basically making money off people's silence," she added.

Fees and services can change: Rogers

Rogers spokesperson Sara Holland refused CBC's request for an interview, but responded in an email that the company spells out its right to change its services and fees in another document, called a terms of service, which is separate from von Sacken's written contract.

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Rosanna von Sacken says she is standing on the principle that "a contract is a contract." ((CBC))

"When our customers sign up with us they get a terms of service document as part of their wireless service agreement," Holland wrote.

"That is our standard practice and we have been assured that this is the practice followed at Costco, where Ms. von Sacken signed on with us."

Holland pointed to one of several clauses, which states:  "Unless otherwise specified in the service agreement, we may change, at any time, any charges, features, content, programming, structure or any other aspects of the services, as well as any term or provision of the service agreement, upon notice to you."

Von Sacken said she was careful to keep every piece of paper relating to her Rogers contract, but never received the terms of service.

"The contract is the only thing I signed and I have nothing else," said von Sacken, who said she later found the terms of service, "buried in page two of my monthly bill, after the fact."

Hundreds of complaints

The BBB in Burnaby, B.C., has received 581 consumer complaints about Rogers Communications in the last three years. It has given Rogers an "F" rating for failing to resolve many of those complaints to the customer's satisfaction.

Rogers also has an "F" rating at the BBB's Toronto and North York locations, where 1,045 complaints were logged in the same period. Approximately half of those complaints were about billing.

Von Sacken expects she is not the only Rogers customer who was upset to find her contract arbitrarily changed.

"Regular consumers, when they buy a cellphone, they look at the big print. They don't always read the fine print," said von Sacken. "Most people would probably say — it's only a few dollars, let it go. But it's wrong."

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Rogers Wireless refused an interview request from CBC News. ((CBC))

John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) in Ottawa said court decisions have upheld the carriers' right to change services and fees after contracts are signed.

"Unfortunately, Canadian courts have said yes, that is binding," said Lawford.

PIAC has been fighting for better consumer protection from cellphone company practices. He pointed out that Bell and Telus also charge the 15-cent fee for incoming texts, a fee those companies brought in a year earlier than Rogers.

That resulted in pressure on the Harper government to take action, Lawford said. Ottawa told the wireless industry to establish a code of conduct, which it did.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association brought in the Code of Conduct for Wireless Service Providers in August of this year, which Rogers and the other major providers voluntarily agreed to abide by.

Industry code not enforced

The code states consumers like von Sacken, whose contracts change, should not be forced to accept those changes.

"In the case of such material changes that are unfavourable to customers, we either give them the right to terminate the contract without any additional fees for early termination, or allow them to remain on the unchanged contract."

"Nobody [from Rogers] has mentioned that I have that option," said von Sacken.

Spokesperson Holland insisted by email that Rogers does not consider its cancellation fee to be a penalty.

"We don't charge a penalty, but rather in accordance with Section 8 of the Rogers terms of service any cancellation of service before the end of the customer's commitment period (i.e. term) is subject to any applicable early cancellation fee. In this customer's case, the fee is $20 per month remaining in her term," Holland wrote.

"I don't feel protected by the [code of conduct] clause at all," von Sacken said.

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John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa hopes new competition in the Canadian market will improve cell phone company practices. ((CBC))

"Part of the problem is the wireless companies haven't made a huge push in telling people that [code of conduct] exists," said Lawford.

The code is supposed to be enforced by the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS), a non-profit association, fully-funded by its industry members, including Rogers, Bell and Telus.

The CCTS was established two-and-a-half years ago, after Ottawa called on the industry to work with the CRTC to establish a body to resolve consumer complaints.

Its annual report said it received 3,214 complaints in 2008-'09, and one-third of those were about wireless telephone companies. The CCTS said most of those complaints were fixed by the companies involved. Only 13 per cent were resolved through CCTS intervention.

'The wireless code is voluntary and the CCTS has some power to award damages — but not very much," said Lawford.

Competition may bring change

Lawford hopes the introduction of new competitors into the marketplace — such as the newly-approved carrier Globalive — will be the real catalyst for change.

"Until now, we've been going backwards," said Lawford. "In other countries we have no charges for incoming calls and we have charges for incoming calls in Canada and the same things for texts now. It's largely because we have three big carriers and not a lot of competition."

Lawford said experts have estimated the 15-cent text messaging charge is hugely profitable for Canada's three big carriers.

"There have been some studies that have shown they mark it up 40,000 per cent — because it's costing a fraction of a cent," he said.

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Consumer groups say fees for incoming texts are a cash-grab, especially when applied to phones used by young people, whose monthly texts often number in the thousands. ((CBC))

PIAC advises consumers to take advantage of the new competition Globalive and others are bringing — by putting their cellphone providers on notice.

"Whatever [part of the contract] is costing you the most money — use it as a bargaining chip with these new people coming in," he said, "that is, if you are in one of the areas of the country lucky enough to have competition."

Von Sacken has a simple message for Rogers, about charging extra fees:

"Other companies doing it does not make it right."