CRTC rejects call for public inquiry into aggressive telecom sales practices

A consumer group says CRTC’s refusal to hold a public inquiry into numerous claims of aggressive and misleading sales practices by Canada’s major telecoms will hurt consumers.

CRTC says consumers already have access to a variety of telecom complaint options

The nonprofit Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) says the CRTC's decision not to hold a public inquiry telecom sales practices hurts consumers. (iStock)

A consumer group is protesting the CRTC's refusal to hold a public inquiry into numerous claims of aggressive and misleading sales practices by some of Canada's major telecoms.

The telecom regulator says there's no need for an inquiry. But the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), a non-profit agency based in Ottawa, says the decision hurts consumers.

"CRTC throws consumers to telco sales dogs," PIAC's executive director, John Lawford, said in a statement.

"The CRTC refusal to inquire into the shocking sales practices of Canada's major telecommunications and broadcasting companies says to consumers, 'You're on your own.'"

Hundreds of complaints

Last month, PIAC requested that the CRTC launch a public inquiry following multiple reports by CBC News' Go Public about high-pressure sales tactics by telecom employees when selling TV, internet or wireless services.

Since Go Public first reported in November on sales pressures at Bell, it has heard from more than 200 past and present employees — mostly working for Bell and Rogers — describing intense pressure to mislead, lie and trick consumers in order to hit unrealistic sales targets.

For example, a Rogers employee admitted to not telling mostly older customers about added fees and to sneaking extra products or services onto a bill.

Shaelene McInnis says her aging in-laws weren't aware they were paying for internet service from Bell. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Meanwhile, more than 300 telecom customers have also contacted Go Public with complaints. Many involve being charged higher prices than what was negotiated over the phone, or not receiving what a sales agent promised.

In one case, Shaelene McInnis of Oshawa, Ont. complained that Bell was charging her aging in-laws for internet service, unbeknownst to them.

Despite the outpouring of complaints, the CRTC turned down PIAC's request for a public inquiry last week, stating in its rejection letter that Canadians already have "well-established and effective mechanisms to resolve issues with their [telecoms]."

Consumers are covered

The CRTC said Canadians with contract or billing issues can complain to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services (CCTS), an independent telecom ombudsman.

In an interview, PIAC's Lawford said that a problem with this approach is that the CCTS is set up to take on individual complaints, not investigate systemic problems.

"Only the CRTC has the regulatory authority to ask the industry to change practices," he said.

CCTS declined to comment on the CRTC's decision.

John Lawford, PIAC's executive director, said taking telecom sales tactics complaints to the CCTS or competition bureau is not a long-term solution. (CBC)

The CRTC also said that unhappy telecom customers have other avenues, such as complaining to the Competition Bureau, which investigates deceptive marketing practices.

But Lawford said the process may take years if the matter ends up before Canada's Competition Tribunal, which rules on matters brought forward by the Competition Bureau. He also worries any outcome could simply wind up being a fine.

"It doesn't solve anything long term and it doesn't put a structure or framework around this problem to make sure it stops," he said.

The Competition Bureau didn't comment on Lawford's claims, but said it takes all complaints about misleading marketing practices seriously.

CRTC best for the job?

Regardless of what other complaint mechanisms are out there, Lawford said, the bottom line is that the CRTC is the best organization to tackle gripes about telecom sales tactics.

He cited the Wireless Code, a mandatory code of conduct for telecoms created by the CRTC to ensure that wireless customers receive fair contracts. He said the telecom regulator could create similar rules to protect consumers from unscrupulous sales practices. 

"I don't think it's appropriate for a regulator to completely ignore this problem and say, 'It's not ours,'" he said. "They're the only ones with the authority to fix it."

The CRTC declined to comment on PIAC's claims. Lawford says he hasn't given up the fight and that his organization will now consider reaching out to members of parliament.

Last month, Rogers, Telus and Shaw told Go Public they would be open to participating in a public inquiry on sales practices. Bell declined to comment.

Both Bell and Rogers have also addressed allegations of questionable sales practices.

Bell told Go Public that it is a trusted Canadian institution that focuses on customers, and that all employees must adhere to a code of conduct that doesn't involve misleading sales tactics.

Rogers said concerns raised didn't represent its values or sales practices and that it would work with employees to address the issue.