Tips for the hard-pressed cellphone user

Marketplace's Tom Harrington looks at the value of the telecom complaints' commissioner.

Considering the inventor of the telephone was Canadian, we shouldn't be surprised at how ubiquitous cellphones are in this country: 24 million of us subscribe to a wireless provider.

An industry that big is bound to have complaints and according to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services, the number is at an all-time high.

But at least one consumer advocate says the real figure could be far greater.

"Unfortunately for every person that knows about the CCTS, there's probably 25 that don't," says John Lawford, a lawyer with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

PIAC is a non-profit agency that provides legal and research services for consumers, in particular in areas where vital public services are involved. It monitors industry practices and pushes for better consumer protection, whatever the business.

Tonight, Friday, at 8 ET, CBC TV's Marketplace once more explores Canada's worst cellphone bills. A preview of the show can be viewed on the Marketplace site. 

Unlike the CCTS, Lawford's group isn't equipped to deal with individual complaints, which is why he is a big advocate of what the complaints commissioner is all about.

Established in 2007, the CCTS is an industry-sponsored group that is supposed to give consumers an objective body to settle disputes with telephone and internet providers.

In December 2010, the CRTC mandated that all telecom companies operating in Canada had to participate.

The fact that the CCTS exists at all, Lawford says, should be promoted in a very public way.

"If you can't get satisfaction, the customer should be advised that there is a free commissioner for complaints for telecommunications services. Here's the number, here's the email, here's the website. You can go there."

Busy signal

But the CCTS is funded by the wireless industry and while it's expected to tell customers to seek help, Lawford is frustrated that the message isn't being conveyed.

"It's not in the interest of the companies and there's no one policing it. So you have CCTS saying 'we're open for business' and the companies are not sending them any customers."

If Canadians were more aware of the CCTS, Lawford suggests they might find they have more leverage in dealing with their telecom providers.

"In a number of cases they've taken this sort of situation on and they've had the bill drastically reduced or forgiven completely. That service should be known to everybody," he says 

"The companies aren't telling customers that when they can't resolve an issue that this commissioner for complaints exists."   As for the kind of complaints heard in PIAC's office, Lawford says data-roaming charges is one of the most common.

Data roaming

As we discovered in "Canada's Worst Cellphone Bill: The Sequel", if you are travelling with a smartphone, particularly overseas, the first rule of thumb is to understand the setting for data roaming.

If not, you could end up with a bill ranging into the thousands of dollars, even the tens of thousands.

And if you really can't leave home without your phone, make sure to check with your carrier for international roaming rates and what sort of plan you will need while travelling abroad.

While it may seem obvious, Lawford suggests that you make sure you understand how your cellphone works.

For his part, he believes the big wireless companies don't arm Canadians with the right kind of advice.

"Anyone who works at a store when they hear international travel should immediately think of huge bills and data-roaming charges."

Predicated on disrespect

As Lawford sees it, "it's pretty much willful negligence to not tell somebody about all these — and if you call and say you are going away, you will probably get a representative that says we have a package that you could pre-buy to at least limit your costs.

"They're still too expensive. But that's a case where they have been instructed to sell something so they can help you."

In the end he says, if you have a question or complaint about your bill, calling the company's customer service line might not be the best solution.

"Customer service unfortunately on its own is a problem with cellphone companies in particular. They have a lot of front-line staff to deflect questions, to tell people that they're wrong and that they need to pay these bills.

"It's a business model predicated on disrespect really."