Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Stuck with $37K bill he can't read, Winnipeg man says door-to-door furnace sales should be banned

Door-to-door salespeople from a Winnipeg company allegedly persuaded a Winnipeg man and his legally blind wife to sign multiple costly contracts for home energy products, creating a mountain of debt for the couple and raising questions about whether the practice should be banned.

Hidden camera captures confusing sales pitch from company subject to 200 complaints

Claude Caya holds an invoice sent to him by Utilebill which shows he owes the company over $37,000 for a furnace, HEPA filter, water filter and electronic air cleaner. (Kristin Annable/CBC)

Door-to-door salespeople from a Winnipeg company allegedly persuaded a Winnipeg man to sign multiple costly contracts for home energy products, creating a mountain of debt for him and raising questions about whether such sales should be banned.

"They took full advantage of him," said Loretta Wolowich, whose stepbrother Claude Caya signed the contracts with Prairie Home Comfort after they came knocking on his door twice over a two-year period.

"He's illiterate — he can't read or write, so he couldn't really read. The odd word he can pick out, but that's about it."

Caya says he had no idea that what he was signing up for would leave him in debt, and with a lien on his home worth over $30,000 and a monthly obligation of over $300 for products he is leasing.

"By the time I pay my bills and then my credit cards, before you know it I have, like, $50 to live on for groceries," said Caya.

The 60-year-old says a salesperson from Prairie Home Comfort — a door-to-door Winnipeg company that sells water heaters, furnaces and air conditioners — came to his door in 2017 and again in 2018. He describes them as smooth talkers, who first convinced him he had lead in his water and later that his 10-year-old furnace needed to be replaced.

He says it was a simple pitch — $50 dollars a month for the products he needed. He signed 10-year leases for a new furnace, HEPA filter, electronic air cleaner, and water filter. 

Now he is struggling to keep up with monthly charges.

200 complaints in 3 years: Manitoba Hydro

Caya is among a growing number of consumers who feel they have been duped by door-to-door sales in the home energy-services sector.

Manitoba's Consumer Protection Office recorded more than 60 complaints concerning home energy door-to-door sellers in 2018-19 — almost double what it received the previous year.

Manitoba Hydro says it has received more than 200 complaints about Prairie Home Comfort in the past three years — more than any other door-to-door sales company.

Winnipeg man says door-to-door furnace sales should be banned. 5:22

Caya's job at an auto parts refurbishment plant doesn't pay enough to cover his bills. His wife, who is legally blind, is unable to work.

He began racking up credit card debt to pay all his bills until he eventually confessed to his family that he didn't have enough money to cover them all.

"Sometimes I have to use my credit card to buy groceries and my sisters are helping me out," he said when asked how he is able to put food on the table.

Caya choked up as he described the humiliation of turning to his adult sisters for help and the gratitude he felt toward them.

"I don't know what I'd do without them," he said.

'We are running a business'

Prairie Home Comfort is a division of Utilebill Credit Corp., a Toronto-based corporation that specializes in financing HVAC-rental programs.

"We don't comment on our dealings with customers," company owner John Nassar said in an email to CBC News.

"We also don't subscribe to the court of public opinion. We are running a business. Customers have ample resources, many free, that involve services offered by government bodies. Those [who] choose not to use those services typically, from our experience, are on the wrong side of truth."

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Caya's story didn't surprise former Red River College instructor Mark Boissoneault — a licensed Red Seal HVAC technician gas fitter and a Red Seal journeyman electrician with more than 30 years in the industry. 

He frequently hears about companies that specialize in selling long-term leases for home energy products.

Tradesman Mechanical Services Ltd. owner Mark Boissoneault says he hears about door-to-door sales pitches frequently, but was shocked by the invoice given to Caya. (Jeff Stapleton / CBC)

But what shocked him in Caya's case was the price. He estimates the entire suite of products should cost less than $10,000, including equipment and installation. 

An invoice from the company sent to Caya last year shows the full amount he owes for all four products is just over $37,000. 

Boissoneault shook his head in disbelief when he saw Caya leased both a HEPA filter and an electronic air cleaner. A customer generally doesn't need one if they have the other, he said. 

"To see that [invoice] here, plus the two items that would do the same thing being sold for a ridiculous amount of money is just — I'm blown away," he said.

"It's shameful, really. I don't know how somebody could sleep at night and do stuff like that."

Credit counsellor says Utilebill won't return calls

Once Loretta Wolowich learned about her stepbrother's financial situation, she took him to Creditaid, a Winnipeg-based credit counselling agency.

"My heart breaks," said Creditaid CEO and president Brian Denysuik, who took on Caya's case. He said reading through his paperwork was painful.

"There's no way they could have understood what they were signing."

Denysuik was able to consolidate Caya's credit card payments and lower their interest rates, but says he can't do anything about the Utilebill charges.

"They won't work with us," Denysuik said.

The invoice sent to Claude Caya in 2018, which shows he owes Utilebill over $37,000 for the four products he leased. (Submitted by Loretta Wolowich)

According to property records, Utilebill has a lien on Caya's home, meaning that when he sells his home, the products he leased from Prairie Home Comfort will either have to be paid off or the contracts transferred to the new buyer.

"If they've got a lien on the property, they've got a secured loan. They can't lose," said Denysuik.

Over the past few weeks, he has been trying to get in touch with Utilebill to go over payment options and gather all of Caya's paperwork.

Caya is unclear about the terms of his lease and Denysuik says he is unable to get all the details from the company.

Hidden cameras capture sales pitch

CBC News set up hidden cameras in a Winnipeg home to capture the pitch made by a salesperson from Prairie Home Comfort. A retired couple recruited by CBC called the company for a consultation on whether they needed a new furnace.

In the first of two visits to their home, the salesperson threw out a series of numbers for what it would cost for a new furnace — starting with the pitch that it would save them $30 to $40 a month on their hydro bill and cost them only $52 a month.

  • Watch the pitch here: 
CBC News set up hidden cameras in a Winnipeg home to capture the pitch made by a salesperson from Prairie Home Comfort. 4:08

However, the pitch quickly fell apart when the couple started asking questions about the pricing. The salesperson said the $6,000 furnace could be paid off in five years with a monthly payment of $50.

When the couple pointed out that that only came to $3,000 the salesperson backtracked and said that it was "just an example."

Boissoneault observed the pitch on a screen from an adjacent room.

"It's basically a low monthly payment. They don't talk about a term or amortization — it's strictly a commitment," he said.

"So you know, you end up never owning this stuff at that point."

The notes written by a salesperson to explain how Prairie Home Comfort payment plan works. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The salesperson returned a second time and showed the couple an example of the agreement they would have to sign if they wanted to lease a new furnace.

After reading the fine print and repeated questioning, the couple learned that for the five-year lease to work, they would have to pay a lump sum of $5,000 at the end of the term.

'They were smooth talkers'

Caya said the first time Prairie Home Comfort came to his door, in May 2017, was under the auspice of testing his water. The salesperson poured a glass of water and put a tablet in the glass. The water immediately turned black.

The salesperson told Caya that must mean there was lead in the water and he should get a water softener.

"They were smooth talkers," he said. "He was saying that they were sent by water utilities because we were getting brown water."

They returned a second time in the fall and sold him on a new furnace, HEPA filter and air cleaner.

Caya's stepsister brought Caya's story to CBC News after learning he barely had enough money to pay for food after paying all his bills.

"You know he's low-income. And his wife — well, she can't see that good. And she doesn't work. And they took full advantage of him."

'They gave me the runaround,' woman says

CBC spoke with another family who also felt duped by a high-pressure sales call at their door.

Erika Parke says a salesperson for Prairie Home Comfort came to her home in 2017 and convinced her to sign a contract for an air conditioner.

She was under the impression the monthly bill would be covered by a Manitoba Hydro rebate. It wasn't, so she asked them to remove the unit. The company never did, she says.

Utilebill sends notices like this to Erika Parke every month after they installed an air conditioner in her home. She says she asked them to remove it. (Submitted by Erika Parke)

"They gave me the runaround. I would phone the number they gave me to phone and it was an answering machine," Parke said.

She has never paid the bill, and says she gets a monthly bill that keeps growing. As of February, she owed Utilebill more than $2,300.

Property records show Utilebill has a lien on her home.

Government mum on banning door-to-door sales

Wolowich and Caya both say they want to make sure this doesn't happen to more unsuspecting customers.

"They should not come knocking on your door and trying to sell things," Caya said. "I don't think it's right."

Loretta Wolowich and her stepbrother go over all the bills and contracts he has signed with Utilebill. (Gil Rowan/CBC)

Following years of complaints about misleading tactics, Alberta banned the door-to-door sale of home energy products such as furnaces or air conditioners in 2016.

Ontario followed suit in 2018, and Saskatchewan recently undertook public consultations as it moves to revise its Direct Sellers Act.

An interview with Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen was declined. In a prepared statement, Cullen told CBC that the direct seller marketplace "is monitored on an ongoing basis."

He didn't specify whether Manitoba would ban door-to-door home energy sales, but stated the government would be "expanding" protections against direct sellers.

Denysuik and Boissoneault agree the door-to-door sales of these products should be banned.

"People are vulnerable," said Denysuik. "We're seeing more and more of this. How do we stop it? How do we control? I don't know. I don't really have an answer."

Currently, the law allows Manitobans to cancel a contract within 10 days of signing it, or within one year of signing if the seller fails to comply with the agreed terms or was unlicensed.

The province's Consumer Protection Office confirmed Prairie Home Comfort is licensed to sell door-to-door in Manitoba, as required under the Consumer Protection Act. A full list of who is licensed is not made public and a request by CBC to access the list was denied.

"There should be more … requirements to the licensing because it's just not working. This isn't the first customer that's been misled and taken advantage of," said Boissoneault.

"It paints a dark picture on the industry."

Manitoba Hydro says it does not work with any furnace companies and it advises against letting door-to-door salespeople in your home.

The Crown corporation also says consumers should get three estimates from reputable furnace companies before purchasing a new one.

About the Author

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca

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