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Customers file record number of complaints about Canadian telcos

Consumers filed a record-breaking number of complaints against Canada's telecom companies in 2018-19 — nearly 19,300, up 35 per cent. Billing and contract disputes continue to top the list, fuelling calls by a consumer advocacy group for more price protections.

Billing problems and non-disclosure of terms top list of complaints in mediator's annual report

David Marco of Vaughan, Ont., says a Bell sales rep promised him a two-year deal for internet, TV and home phone service, but the price went up after a few months. (Submitted by David Marco)

David Marco has no shortage of unflattering adjectives for Bell Canada — a telecom service provider he says convinced him to sign on as a customer by misrepresenting the true cost of a two-year deal for internet, TV and home phone.

"It's outrageous. It's patently wrong. It's deceptive," Marco, 65, told Go Public from his home in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto.

In October, he filed a complaint with the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS) — and he's got company. According to the industry mediator's annual report, consumers filed a record-breaking number of complaints against Canada's telecom companies in 2018-19 — nearly 19,300. 

The CCTS says that figure is a 35 per cent increase over 2017-18 and an all-time high in the organization's 12-year history. 

"It's disappointing to see … issues that customers shouldn't have to deal with," said CCTS Commissioner Howard Maker. "It tells us that there's still room for improvement."

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The report, released Thursday, tracks complaints received between Aug. 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019, of which the greatest share (over 40 per cent) were billing errors, followed by contract disputes (over 30 per cent) and dissatisfaction with service delivery (over 20 per cent). 

CCTS says it "successfully resolved" 91 per cent of all concluded complaints.

Bell Canada, the country's largest telecom, with 22 million subscriptions, received the most complaints — almost 5,900. (A customer with multiple services from the same provider can be associated with several subscriptions.)

Complaints against Bell about incorrect charges and "disclosure of important information" were "disproportionately high," according to the report. 

A Bell spokesperson notes the company's share of total complaints declined slightly over the previous year, and that it is reviewing the report to "ensure that they continue to provide customers with the best experience." 

Rogers, which has about 16 million subscriptions, received just over 1,800 complaints. Its share of complaints also slightly decreased over the previous year. 

Rogers had a "disproportionately high percentage" of complaints about incorrect charges on wireless accounts, but received a slightly lower proportion of complaints about credits and refunds that weren't received on internet services. 

A Rogers spokesperson said the company had the fewest complaints per subscriber among the national carriers and has "started to see progress" in improving its customer service.

Telus, with 14.5 million subscribers, received just over 1,600 complaints — up 71 per cent. 

Most of those were about either changes to wireless contracts (28 per cent) or wireless price increases (30 per cent), according to the report. It received a lower proportion of complaints about incorrect wireless charges and contract disputes.

"Shame on us that we had language that was confusing and not transparent," Tony Geheren, executive VP at Telus, told Go Public. He says the increase in complaints was a result of a "poorly executed rate change" for wireless customers and that Telus has since simplified its contracts. 

The report notes 158 violations of the Wireless Code — a 42 per cent increase. Most involved a failure of companies to provide customers with key documents, and not giving proper notice before disconnecting a customer's service.

Bell accounted for 29 per cent of all Wireless Code breaches, while Rogers and Telus each accounted for 20 per cent. 

'Subject to change'

Marco's frustration began last March, when he says a Bell sales representative promised him internet, TV and home phone service for $119.90 a month for two years.

But in September, the price for his TV service went up by $3.50.

When he called Bell, he recorded the conversation, and a second rep told him to look at the contract the company emailed him after he verbally agreed to sign up — it mentions that prices are "subject to change."

Marco says he didn't scrutinize the contract, because he was going with what the first rep offered him on the phone. He requested a transcript of that conversation but was told that wasn't possible. 

Howard Maker, head of the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Service, says his organization reviewed more than 19,000 complaints from customers in 2018-19, mostly about billing and contract disputes. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

"There will be no way for us, sir, to send you a copy of the transcript," the rep said.

Marco says that's nonsense. "The contract was the phone call. They're denying that they have the contract," he said. 

He says a story reported by Go Public last year supports his argument — a case that went to small claims court determined that a verbal agreement between a customer and Bell trumps any written contract that the telecom giant emails after the fact.

CCTS investigated but said it couldn't help, because according to Bell the transcript no longer existed. The company only holds them for six months which, according to a Bell spokesperson, is "standard practice" in the industry.

"I think that's problematic," said Maker, the head of the CCTS.  "We've spent a lot of time asking the CRTC … to ensure that service providers are retaining records so that an independent investigation can be obtained and the actual facts can be determined."

"The ability to … investigate what happened is limited in the absence of that phone call."

A Bell spokesperson says the company records calls for training and coaching, but doesn't keep them longer than six months. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Missed opportunity

Consumer advocate John Lawford says what's really needed is a ban on price increases for internet and TV during the life of a contract — the same way companies aren't permitted to jack up prices during a cellphone contract.

"The Wireless Code doesn't let you change your wireless pricing for two years," Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, told Go Public. "It kind of sets the trap for consumers who are expecting the same protections on internet and TV as they have on their wireless phone."

He says the CRTC missed a "golden opportunity" when it created similar rules for internet service, which come into effect on Jan. 31. 

"They allowed the Internet Code to go into effect without the rule that you have to keep the price the same," says Lawford. "It is a very big missed opportunity."

John Lawford with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre is calling for price protection for internet and TV contracts. (Erica Johnson/CBC)

Lawford doesn't think the telco giants will lock in prices for internet and TV contracts unless the regulator demands it.

He says people fed up with "unfair" contracts should complain to the CRTC, the Competition Bureau and their MP. 

"Put pressure on those powers that be — to make the rules for internet and TV the same as they are for as they are for wireless," says Lawford. 

Meantime, Marco says he will find another provider when his two-year contract is over. For now, he has advice for anyone calling a telecom. 

"Record the conversation. Record anything — incoming and outgoing," he says. "Because it's the only protection that they'll get."

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With files from Enza Uda