Saskatoon woman joins complaints against fees from collect call company

A Saskatoon woman is joining dozens across Canada who say a Calgary-based company is getting away with charging far too much for collect calls — but CRTC doesn't regulate long distance collect call rates.

Better Business Bureau warns 'buyer beware'; CRTC doesn't regulate long distance collect call rates

Callers across Canada have found themselves shocked by the bills they receive after brief payphone calls. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

A Saskatoon woman is joining dozens across Canada who say a Calgary-based company is getting away with charging far too much for collect calls.

Jean Martin, 72, was charged more than $10 per minute by the company WiMacTel for recent collect calls from her son. He called three separate times from payphones in Alberta. Martin accepted the calls to be charged on her SaskTel bill not knowing that the three brief calls would rack up a charge of $156.66.

She had expected the long-distance calls to cost a bit more than usual, but when she got her bill, "well I nearly fell over."
Jean Martin says the price of collect calls from her son James have made her "sick to her stomach." (Submitted by Jean Martin)

Martin said as a senior living on a pension, she can't afford the price of those calls. Even after contacting WiMacTel and having more than $50 knocked off the price, she said it is still a "total ripoff."

When Martin called the company for a second time, she finally got an answer she found satisfactory. Two of the calls, which had been billed as lasting five minutes, had amounted to less than a minute, which led WiMacTel to write them off completely, Martin said. The third call of four minutes received an extra 20 per cent off.

An upcoming charge, for a four-minute Alberta call, amounted to $22.49, which is less than half of what she was charged on the previous call of the same length. 

When contacted by email regarding Martin's bill, Roxanne Liang, a representative with WiMacTel, wrote "the costs you are quoting do sound out of the ordinary."

She declined to provide answers on the company's typical rates for calls of this nature.

Charges raise ire against WiMacTel across Canada

If people place a collect long distance call from a payphone in Canada, even from a Bell, Telus, or SaskTel phone, chances are WiMacTel is the billing agency, SaskTel's Michelle Englot explained in an email.

SaskTel uses WiMacTel's operator services "because they have the end-to-end capability for payphone management," Englot wrote. WiMacTel charges its own rates for long distance calls that are collect or that are paid for via credit card.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB)'s website has logged 22 complaints against WiMacTel in the past three years along with 17 negative reviews, almost all of which echo Martin's concerns.

We are seeing clear explanations from the business.- Leah  Brownridge , Better Business Bureau
One complainant wrote he was charged $14.77 for a phone call lasting less than a minute. Complainants and reviewers have referred to the company's charging practices as "exorbitant," "grossly overcharging customers," "outrageous," "robbery," and "gouging people."

While some, including Martin, accuse the company of "undisclosed, predatory pricing," WiMacTel disputes that. The company states in responses to BBB complaints there is a prompt for people to receive a quote before accepting the call, but many bypass that option, which amounts to giving consent to the charges.

WiMacTel is accredited with an A+ rating by the BBB, which it has maintained because it responds to all customer complaints even though a resolution is not always found, said Leah Brownridge with the BBB.

"There's lots of different factors that suggest to us that this is not a scam, that this business is not operating to dupe consumers or swindle them out of their money, or operating dishonestly. We are seeing clear explanations from the business," Brownridge said.

What you need to know about collect calls

Long distance phone calls are not regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which allows WiMacTel to determine its own rates.

Comments from WiMacTel on the BBB site indicate the charges for long distance calls on credit card calls rather than coin-operated calls are high for many reasons, including billing and collection costs, the costs of callers not paying their debts, and credit card processing fees. There are also other variables, including where the call originates from and whether there is a live or automated operator, according to WiMacTel.

"In Better Business Bureau's eyes it is a case of buyer beware, and making sure that as the consumer you are listening to all of the menu options and listening to all of the charges that may be applied before going ahead and making that phone call," Brownridge said.

Local charges for collect calls via payphone are subject to regulation by the CRTC. According to SaskTel, local collect calls made on one of the 1,400 payphones across the province include a $1 operator surcharge per call.