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Telus customers Bonnie and Travis Krisher say they were unaware of Travis's calling card bill, which adversely affected their credit rating. ((CBC))

A couple from Courtenay, B.C., is upset with Telus for putting a black mark on their credit rating for an old bill they said they didn't know about.

"It's a bill that I didn't know I had," said Travis Krisher, a pilot with Air Canada Jazz. "If I had a bill I would pay for it. My [good] credit score proves my history."

"All it would have taken is one phone call," said his wife, Bonnie, a debt arbitrator. "One phone call, and it would have been paid."

The $210 calling-card bill dates back to 2004. The Krishers said the first they heard of it was last year, after a collection agency reported the debt to Equifax, on behalf of Telus. As a result, Travis Krisher's credit beacon score dropped by more than 100 points — from 789 to 675. A perfect score is 900.

"When you have a lower beacon score it affects the amount a creditor will lend to you," said Bonnie. "When there's damage on a credit report it's on there for six years."

When the couple went to purchase a home, Travis said it made it more difficult to qualify for the large mortgage. "We also couldn't get the interest rate that we wanted — so we are paying more."

Longtime Telus customers

The Krishers have been Telus customers for years, with both landlines and cellphones. In recent years, they moved several times, because of Travis's job. In 2004, they moved from Salmon Arm, B.C., to Vancouver.

Bonnie said she informed Telus of their new address and arranged to have their phone accounts transferred. For some unexplained reason, all the accounts were then updated except Travis's calling card, which he said he stopped using at about the same time.

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Telus spokesperson Shawn Hall says the company couldn't call Bonnie Krisher about her husband's debt because that would have violated his privacy. ((CBC))

Telus explained that it continued sending calling-card bills to the old address, but got no response. "We sent a bill in August of 2004 that was paid. After that, it was like — snap — he disappeared," said Telus spokesperson Shawn Hall. "Suddenly the bills just stopped being paid."

Telus pointed out, it now has 11.9 million customer accounts and tens of millions of dollars in bad debts each year.

In 2005, Telus turned Travis's debt over to CBV Collection Services, which also sent notices to the Krishers' old address. In 2008, without trying further to reach the couple, CBV reported the debt to credit reporting agencies, including Equifax.

"We were not able to locate them because they had moved," said CBV spokesperson Bob Richards, who also said collection agents would not search aggressively over a debt worth barely $200.

"I'm pretty easy to find," said Travis. "Just Google, or check 411. I'm right there."

'Walls between customers'

Telus explained it didn't track down Travis before sending the account to collections, because all of the couple's other accounts are in Bonnie's name, with Travis listed only as an authorized user.

"We keep walls between customers," said Hall. "We didn't know that Travis had moved with Bonnie. We didn't know that they were a couple. We didn't know they were married."

When asked why the company does not compare customer addresses to match new and old accounts, Hall said this would be a breach of privacy. "We do not cross-reference addresses or names when we are dealing with customers. That would be a privacy violation," he said.

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"If we were to call one customer out of the blue and ask, 'Hey are you married to such and such — you know we have a bad debt with him,' what if he is your separated husband? Are we giving you information that could be used in a child separation case?" the Telus spokesman added. 

"We are not going to randomly phone Bonnie and ask about Travis because we respect his privacy."

The Krishers said they believe Telus is using privacy as an excuse for lax customer service. "I think it's a cover for them," said Travis.

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Scott Hannah of the Credit Counselling Society tells the CBC's Kathy Tomlinson that companies like Telus can ask credit agencies to take negative information off their customer's credit reports when honest mistakes are made. ((CBC))

"[Telus] didn't even have to talk to me," said Bonnie. "They didn't even have to tell me who they were when they called. They could have just phoned and asked for Travis."

Black mark remains

The couple paid the calling-card bill plus interest last year, and Travis's credit report now reflects that. However, the past debt is still recorded, and it appears as if he ignored it for years.

The Credit Counselling Society, which helps people with debts and credit ratings, said Telus could and perhaps should now ask Equifax to remove it completely.

"If Telus … asked the credit bureau to remove that, that information could come off their file," said society president Scott Hannah. "Clearly in a case where things slipped through the cracks unintentionally and we have a customer that has a good track record, I think that's a point in time where a creditor should look at that from a different perspective."

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa said it has heard similar complaints from consumers who say they didn't know about an outstanding phone bill until it affected their credit rating. 

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Travis Krisher's credit score dropped by more than 100 points because of the Telus debt. ((CBC))

"Despite the inability to get anyone in this infernal [telecommunications industry] machine to take responsibility, many more sophisticated lenders know that [phone companies] do this all the time and will lend you money anyway," said the advocacy centre's John Lawford. "No guarantee of this, though. And your credit score and report are still awful for years."

'No recourse'

Lawford said sometimes unpaid phone bills are for charges customers have disputed. He said consumers have no recourse except to appeal to the creditor's goodwill.

"No protection whatsoever. No recourse. No accountability whatsoever," said Lawford. "The repercussions are those experienced here [by the Krishers]. Part of the problem relates to federal-provincial jurisdictional problems."

Telus said it would consider whether to request Krisher's record be cleared, but this would be highly unusual since the bill did go unpaid for years.

"We can certainly take a look at that, but we would be loath to do that because that is rewriting history," said Hall. "The bottom line is this did happen. What's in the credit rating does now accurately portray what happened."

"They certainly have a lot of power," said Bonnie Krisher. "They have the power to put anything on someone's credit report, and then to say they're not going to remove it, after it affects their lives and affects their families."

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Consumer advocates say complaints about telecommunications companies sending unknown bills to collection are common. ((CBC))

Telus suggests that when customers move they should ensure their address is changed on every one of their accounts.

Married customers can put both names on all accounts, the company said, unless they want information kept private from a spouse.