Winnipeg business owner hit with $61K bill denies Bell MTS statement she was warned of vulnerability

Bell MTS says it gave a Winnipeg business owner multiple warnings over several years that her phone system was out of date before sending her a bill for more than $61,000.

Nadine Speirs received $61,332 bill last week after phone was hacked by fraudsters

Several hundred calls were made to Cuba and the Philippines from Nadine Speirs's business landlines, according to Bell MTS records. (Travis Golby/CBC News)

Bell MTS says it gave a Winnipeg business owner two warnings over six years that her phone system was vulnerable to hackers before sending her a bill for more than $61,000 after her lines were hacked last month.

But the customer says she was never given those warnings.

Nadine Speirs, who owns Metal Depot Ltd., received the $61,332 bill last week after fraudsters accessed her business's phone lines, resulting in sky high long-distance charges, according to Bell MTS.

After CBC reported the story, the phone provider offered to reduce the bill to $17,000. But Speirs says that's still not acceptable, since she didn't make the calls in the first place.

Earlier this week, Bell MTS told CBC it would look into Speirs's bill. On Friday, the phone provider sent a statement outlining two occasions since 2013 where it says staff told Speirs her system was vulnerable — a timeline which Speirs disputes.

The phone provider says some customers choose to provide their own telephone systems, and in those cases, "our terms of service clearly state the customer is responsible for safeguarding their system against fraudulent activity," an emailed statement from the company said.

The phone provider says it alerted Metal Depot in 2013 that its third-party private branch exchange system — a private telephone network used for internal and external calls in an organization — was out of date, and vulnerable to fraudulent activity. Metal Depot declined to purchase a new system from MTS at that time, the statement says.

Nadine Speirs says she's being held responsible for a $61,332.97 Bell MTS phone bill that she believes is due to a technology issue. (Travis Golby/CBC News)

Then, in October 2015, Bell MTS says Metal Depot experienced long-distance fraud, which the phone provider helped resolve.

"We credited these charges as a one-time goodwill gesture, explained that they're responsible for the security of their own system and provided information about how to protect their system from fraud," Bell MTS wrote in its statement.

'It doesn't make any sense'

But Speirs says she was never told her system was vulnerable to fraud. She says the only phone provider she's ever had has been Bell MTS (previously MTS, before Bell took over the company in 2017) and she has no recollection of her phone systems being hacked prior to this year.

"I don't remember that ever happening, ever taking place," she says. "It doesn't make any sense to me."

Speirs says she remembers being told her phone headsets were out of date years ago. But the sets worked fine at the time and the cost to replace them was around $8,000, and Speirs says no one from the phone provider explained to her the update was needed for security reasons.

Nadine Speirs received a 433-page Bell MTS phone bill last week for more than $61,000. She says there's no way she or any of her employees caused the charges. (Travis Golby/CBC News)

"In my mind, as the consumer, it was not, 'You better buy this or you're not going to be safe,'" she said. "There was never an awareness of, 'OK, if you don't buy this system, you are now vulnerable, and we're off the hook.'"

The bill Speirs received last week was due Friday, but Speirs said she didn't pay the vast majority of it.

Instead, she says she got a call from a Bell MTS representative, informing her there would be no late fee for not paying the high bill. The representative asked that she still pay the amount of her typical monthly phone bill — just over $200 — which Speirs says she did.

'I just want it to be over'

Speirs said she still hasn't heard from the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services after filing a complaint about the bill. The independent national body works to resolve complaints like hers for free.

"The customer has filed a complaint with the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS), and we'll follow the CCTS process to resolve it," the Bell MTS statement said.

She says the process has left her exhausted.

"I just want it to be over," she said. "I've got more important things to do, running my business, and this just takes a lot of energy."

Since coming forward, she said she's been contacted by others who had similar experiences.

"It's frustrating and it's wrong and it's scary that this could continue and that, you know, as I'm hearing from more and more people, this is happening a lot," she said.

Earlier this week, she said she's getting a lawyer to review her current phone plan contract with Bell MTS.

"They need to be accountable," she said. "It's not good enough to just have some embedded statement somewhere in your terms and conditions that says 'Hey, we're not on the hook, it's up to you to protect [yourself].'"

With files from Sam Samson