Loyalty reward program regulations urged by consumer group

A consumer group is continuing its call for more protection for Canadians enrolled in loyalty programs.

Rewards should be considered a form of non-cash currency, according to advocacy group

One consumer advocacy group is calling for industry-wide guidelines for reward programs so consumers aren't surprised by arbitrary decisions to change the rules. (CBC)

A consumer group is continuing its call for better protection for Canadians enrolled in loyalty reward programs such as Air Miles and Shoppers Optimum.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a non-profit organization that provides legal and research services on behalf of consumer interests, published a report in 2013 urging oversight of Air Miles, Shoppers Optimum, Canadian Tire 'Money', Aeroplan and the other rewards programs in the country.

"Consumers have very little recourse when loyalty program providers unilaterally decide to do things such as devalue loyalty points or currency and change other terms and conditions of their programs," Jonathan Bishop, a research analyst with the centre, told CBC News.

He said the centre believes rewards should be considered a form of currency because they hold value and you can exchange them for goods and services.

"Some programs allow the bequeathal to other people, they're allowed to be transferred, so we find they can be considered a form of non-cash payment and we recommend that loyalty currency enjoy protection similar to other forms of non-cash payment in Canada," he said.

Expiring miles and points

Air Miles announced back in 2011 that it would start eliminating miles older than five years on a quarterly basis as of Dec. 31 this year.

Shoppers Drug Mart was forced to reverse a similar decision about seven-year-old points in 2013 after a public outcry.  

Shoppers is currently the subject of a class action lawsuit in Quebec after it reduced the value of Optimum points.

It has a clause in its terms and conditions that says it can change the contract. But lawyer Sylvie De Bellefeuille with Option consommateurs, an association devoted to advocating and promoting the rights and interests of consumers, maintains that violates a clause in Quebec law that says a contract cannot be abusive.

She said a lot of people believe they're getting points or rewards for free but that is not the case. 

"We pay differently," she said. "We might not pay with money but we pay with personal information and that data is priceless."

Industry guidelines urged

Aeroplan is facing a national class action lawsuit over its decision to wipe out points if the collector hasn't used their card once in a 12-month period.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre is recommending industry-wide guidelines so consumers know what to expect from reward plans.

Bishop said when his group produced its 2013 report, it hoped the industry would see that such guidelines are beneficial, consumers would have more certainty, and that rules should be universal not matter the program.

"But that obviously hasn't happened," he said.

Neither has a report recommendation to established or designate a federal or provincial agency to deal with complaints about loyalty programs. 

Who benefits most from reward programs?

The report concluded that companies are the big winners in loyalty programs, suggesting Canadians usually have to spend more than $1,000 to obtain a $20 reward from a credit card.

Bishop said there's a reason companies that offer rewards move to eliminate miles or points that have not been used for a long period.

"They're viewed as an outstanding liability on the corporate balance sheet so the idea of having those miles expire in a given period, even if it's five or eight years, means there's light at the end of the tunnel in terms of cutting down on their outstanding liabilities," he said.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.

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