Customer records 3 Bell reps offering same deal, then is told he can't have it
Verbal agreements can be just as binding as written ones depending on the evidence, lawyer says
Walter Schultz doesn't like leaving anything to chance. The licensed private investigator documents everything — so when he contacted Bell Mobility in February for a better deal on his service, he recorded the exchanges.
Three different customer service representatives made the same offer, which he accepted, that included 10 GB of data for $55 per month.
But Bell later told the Kitchener, Ont., man he couldn't have the deal — because it didn't exist.
"My initial reaction was laughing like, this is not real, this is not happening … it's absurd," said Schultz.
These kinds of transactions — where one thing is promised and another delivered — seem to be happening a lot with telecom providers.
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Misleading information or contract terms that conflict with a prior agreement are among the top complaints according to the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS) — a mediator between customers and telcos.
More than 3,600 such complaints, out of 15,661, were filed with the CCTS between August 2019 and July 2020. (It's hard to tell how many of the complaints have merit. The CCTS says some are dismissed when customers won't co-operate with the process, or when the telco makes another, reasonable offer.)
Bell, one of Canada's Big Three telcos and its largest wireless provider, had by far the most complaints in 2019-20, followed by Rogers Communications and Videotron.
Bell blames Schultz's experience on the sales reps — it says they conflated two separate offers, and has since apologized.
But contract law professor and lawyer Anthony Daimsis says a lot of customers don't realize a verbal contract can be just as solid as a written one — if there is proof.
"The written part, it's really irrelevant — it gets too much hype maybe in movies and TV," said Daimsis from the University of Ottawa.
He says once an offer is accepted by the customer, it could be considered a legal contract.
"The difference between a written and a non-written agreement really comes down to evidence. The law doesn't say that an oral promise is any less binding than a written promise."
But even those who do have proof are finding it hard to get what they were promised.
Schultz had plenty of evidence, but that didn't seem to help him with Bell.
When he first spoke with an agent on Feb. 27, he thought it was a done deal, because that's what the agent told him. In the recording — which Go Public heard — the agent clearly says all Schultz needs to do is go to his local Bell store to pick up the new phone and the data offer would kick in.
Schultz even asked for a confirmation number, and was told he didn't need one because everything was noted on his account.
LISTEN | Schultz promised deal:
But when he arrived at the store that same day, no one knew anything about any offer.
Schultz called customer service again — and again was told he qualified for the deal he was promised. This time, the agent said the telco would send the new phone and contract directly to him.
The contract arrived in an email on March 2, with only 5 GB — half the data that was promised for the same money.
Refusing to give up, Schultz followed up with a third Bell agent in an online chat — and yet again was told there was no problem, that the deal would show up on his billing.
It never did. Instead, on March 29, he got a message from Bell saying he couldn't have the offer because, "the plan in question does not exist."
Schultz complained to the CCTS but Bell refused to budge.
Instead, the telco told the commission it already made him a different, "reasonable" offer, in that March 29 email, that included 8 GB for $45. That offer would have Schultz paying slightly more per gigabyte.
He turned it down. He says it's not about the cost at this point.
"All I wanted was for them to honour their word. It was a very simple thing."
Bell battles customers over contracts
Bell has been fighting some of these complaints through the CCTS and through the courts.
In one case, the CCTS found in favour of a customer who said, in May 2019, he was verbally offered a fixed price "guaranteed for life" for TV, internet and phone services that Bell later reneged, by claiming the offer didn't exist.
The CCTS scolded Bell after it said the recording of that conversation wasn't available — even though the telco said it had listened to the recording as part of its internal investigation into that same complaint.
"If the provider is saying no, this is not what was agreed to, then we do expect the provider to be able to demonstrate what was the agreement," Josée Thibault, assistant commissioner at the CCTS told Go Public.
Schultz says Bell's response to the CCTS in his case is also "conspicuously missing" key information like the online chat agent's comments confirming he was supposed to get 10 GB.
Then there's the case of David Ramsay which Go Public covered in 2018.
The Toronto man took Bell to small claims court and won after it refused to honour a verbal contract made over the phone; later emailing him a contract that said prices could change.
'Suck it up,' says lawyer
In an email to Go Public, Bell said, in Schultz's case, its "agents made errors in combining two separate offers and we have since coached them on the correct process.
As a result, the billing did not reflect what was initially promised to Mr. Schultz."
The telco apologized for what it calls "this rare experience," saying it looks "forward to rectifying the situation."
WATCH | Bell customer told he can't have deal offered to him:
Daimsis, the law professor, says it's Bell's responsibility to keep their employees up to date or give customers what they were promised.
"Ultimately… it could be on Bell to, not a legal term, but suck it up when a mistake is made by their employee. At least honour that mistake," he said.
"There are some legal reasons why they might have to do that anyway [if] the individual's led to reasonably believe an offer was available."
He says the biggest problem for consumers is "accessing justice," because it's often too expensive to enforce consumer rights if a telco refuses to budge and the CCTS rules against the complainant.
"Already consumers always feel that they're in a weaker position, and I think they are, which is why we have legislation to protect them… but what are [they] going to do? Commence a legal action for $100? Most people will not," he said.
Schultz hasn't ruled out court action but wants to see what the CCTS decides. He vows to see his complaint about Bell through to the end.
"Where does responsibility start and end with this organization? And when will they take accountability for their actions?"
After Go Public contacted Bell, Schultz got a message from the CCTS saying the telco is now making additional offers.
He says while he wants the deal repeatedly offered by the company in the first place, he'll also consider the latest ones.
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With files by Jenn Blair