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'We just have to stop this': MPP says Ontario should investigate banning door-to-door telecom sales

An Ontario MPP says sales tactics used to sell Bell services — revealed in a CBC hidden camera investigation — are "beyond reprehensible" and suggest the province may have to ban such door-to-door sales.

CBC hidden camera investigation captured sales reps for Bell services misleading on price and internet speed

A CBC hidden camera investigation caught door-to-door sales reps for Bell services repeatedly making false promises to potential customers. (Marketplace/CBC)

An Ontario MPP says door-to-door sales tactics for Bell Canada services — revealed by a CBC investigation this week — are "absolutely despicable," and strongly suggest that telecom sales may need to be included in the province's new ban on door-to-door sales of certain products and services.

It was a private member's bill introduced by Liberal MPP Yvan Baker that led to Ontario's ban on door-to-door sales of water heaters, air conditioners, furnaces and water treatment systems, which came into effect March 1. The ban does not include preventing telecoms from peddling their products door-to-door.

"I think it's beyond reprehensible that there are people who are misleading, who are using aggressive tactics to coerce people into these contracts that are not to the benefit of the consumer," Baker said in an interview.

Liberal MPP Yvan Baker introduced a private member's bill that led to Ontario's ban on door-to-door sales of certain products. (Submitted by Yvan Baker's staff)

Baker's comments come after a joint Go Public/Marketplace investigation into door-to-door sales for Bell services, which culminated in a hidden camera investigation in which a CBC producer got hired by a company selling Bell services door-to-door.

On hidden cameras, sales reps misled homeowners on "guaranteed" monthly prices for Bell's Fibe TV, internet and home phone packages. They also twisted the truth on WiFi reach, internet speed and Bell's fibre optic network.

"When I saw the practices that were being used, they were very similar to practices that have been used in the past by door-to-door salespeople selling furnaces, water heaters, air conditioners and other products," said Baker.

He said the federal telecom regulator should investigate, but since there has not been any movement from the CRTC, the province of Ontario may have to step in to protect consumers.

"At the end of the day ... we just have to stop this," said Baker. "So if there's a way for the provincial government to act to prevent this from happening, I think that that's a good idea, if the federal government does not act."

Front door deception

CBC stories investigating telecom sales prompted dozens of people to contact Go Public saying they, too, were duped at the door. Most Bell customers writing about price deception, with others saying they were misled about discounts, or weren't informed about cancellation fees.

Ronald Phendler of Magog, Que., says he was misled by a sale rep who guaranteed him a monthly price of $103 for a year — only to see it climb to $130 within months.

He says he's called Bell at least half a dozen times to argue about charges and negotiate credits for temporary relief, but then the price climbs back up.

"I just feel so helpless when I phone them up," he says. "They're a little bit rude, or 'I'll see what we can do' — like they're doing me a huge favour."

The worst part, he says, is that the sales rep at his front door railroaded him in to buying a TV, internet and home phone package when he doesn't own a television.

"I said, 'I don't want the television package' and they said, 'If you don't take the television it's going to be more expensive.' How ridiculous!"

A Bell Canada spokesperson said the company will be contacting Phendler "to review his account and ensure he is happy with our services."

Bell contracts out door-to-door sales

Bell contracts out all of its door-to-door sales, and told CBC it apologizes to any customers who may have been "adversely affected" by the misleading sales tactics profiled in our hidden camera investigation.

Sales reps at Mox1, a subcontractor that sells for Bell, get a pep talk before heading out to neighbourhoods in the Toronto area. (Marketplace/CBC )

The company profiled in that investigation, Mox1 Business Solutions — based in Mississauga, Ont. — is also no longer selling Bell products.

However, Go Public has heard from a handful of other former sales reps working for other third-party companies selling Bell services, who say they, too, were trained to mislead customers.

'Clearly there's a problem here'

CBC's door-to-door sales investigation is troubling to the executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada, Ken Whitehurst.

"Clearly there's a problem here, where you've found misrepresentation," says Whitehurst.

"There's something about the selling method here, and the telco, that really needs to be looked at," he says. "It's not that dissimilar from other kinds of selling practices that have emerged in other sectors."

Canada's telecoms are federally regulated, but the CRTC has said it will not hold a public inquiry into telecom sales tactics.

Whitehurst says even though telecoms are federally regulated, the provinces have jurisdiction over many things in the consumer protection realm, and the Ontario government could step in to investigate door-to-door sales.

"We've seen examples of this kind of selling in other areas where this method of selling has been very detrimental to some consumers," says Whitehurst. "Their [Ontario government's] action was to say, 'You can't make a contract at the door, basically.' 

"So I think they need to look and see whether this is a troubled sector."

Since CBC began investigating telecom sales practices, more than 900 customers and employees have written Go Public about sales pressures, upselling and misleading sales tactics used on the phone, in retail stores, and by door-to-door sales agents.

'Prepared ... to take appropriate action'

When Go Public asked Ontario's Ministry of Government and Consumer Services whether it would support banning door-to-door telecom sales, spokesperson Sue Carroll wrote that the ministry monitors the marketplace, " to ensure that consumers are protected from predatory sales and contracting practices and financial harm."

"As such, where the government sees evidence of problems in a sector that warrants strong intervention, it is prepared and able to take appropriate action."

'Will not hesitate to take action'

The Competition Bureau investigates misleading marketing, but spokesperson Marie-France Faucher told Go Public that because the bureau's work is confidential, she couldn't confirm whether it had received telecom complaints, or whether it was investigating such complaints.

Faucher said consumers who feel they've been misled can file a complaint with the bureau. If the bureau finds evidence of deceptive marketing practices, "it will not hesitate to take action," wrote Faucher.

MPP Baker says door-to-door sales have to be monitored closely, because of the potential for harm.

"It's particularly frustrating for me that a lot of the people who end up being victims to these kind of practices are the most vulnerable consumers," he said. "Very often, they're seniors or people for whom English is not their first language."

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Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda


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