Nova Scotia

Bell tells 88-year-old she must wait 4½ years to get cellphone credits refunded

An 88-year-old Nova Scotia woman who seldom used her cellphone is trying to recover money from Bell, after automatic debits to pay for the service added up to a credit of close to $1,000.

'I just kept being shifted from one person to another and I never got any satisfaction'

Theresa Smith of Milford, N.S., holds the cell phone she never uses. Bell refused repeated requests to refund an almost $1,000 credit. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

"Mother" Theresa won't be easily defeated.

An 88-year-old Nova Scotia woman, handed her nickname by fellow churchgoers, has been battling Bell Canada for six months to get the telecommunications giant to refund almost $1,000 in credits on her cellphone.

Bell has refused, offering instead to stop the automatic withdrawals from her credit card, and use the existing credit to pay for her cellphone going forward. The credit is expected to cover the next 4½ years.

"You might not be here tomorrow," said Theresa Smith, of Milford, N.S. "We don't know. But 4½ years? There's less chance of being here in 4½ years."

Smith was given the cellphone several years ago to keep with her in case she encountered an emergency while driving. She has since sold her car and has a home medical alert system in case of emergency.

She no longer needs her cellphone and keeps it in a kitchen drawer. She can't remember the last time she used it.

Smith's cellphone plan provided her with a regular number of minutes each month for $17.25. If they went unused, the money was rolled over into the following month. That's how the money piled up.

Smith tried to iron out the situation herself when she called Bell last November, but she said she got nowhere.

"I just kept being shifted from one person to another, and I never got any satisfaction from any of them," she said.

Family members also tried talking to Bell without success.

Never got bill as debits added up

Bell automatically debited her credit card $17.25 every month. She said she never received a bill until she started inquiring about the credit so she had no idea how much had built up.

Subsequently, the cellphone charge showed up on her Bell home bill.

Sherma Versteeg and Theresa Smith look over her credit card bills to ensure Bell has stopped charging Smith for a cellphone she never uses. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Sherma Versteeg and Smith attend the same church. They met 35 years ago.

Versteeg tried to help her friend.

"Everybody calls her 'Mother' Theresa," Versteeg said. "She's an absolute doll. The kindest, sweetest person that you could meet and, honestly, she is just like a mother to everybody."

Smith is affectionately called 'Mother' Theresa by her congregation because 'she's just like a mother to everybody.' (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Versteeg spent more than three hours on the phone with Bell on Nov. 8 trying to get approximately $960 refunded to Smith. She has several pages of notes to prove it.

'The Bell Shuffle'

She was originally told Smith could get a refund, but then she was transferred and began what she termed "The Bell Shuffle."

She was put on hold — she says sometimes for 10 minutes — as she was transferred from one representative to another. In all, she said she spoke to 11 employees.

In the end, Bell refused to issue a refund. It did agree to discontinue the automatic debits and said it would apply the credit to the cellphone bill going forward, an estimated four-and-a-half years. 

Some of the six pages of notes Sherma Versteeg took during her lengthy phone call to Bell. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"I just feel it's just morally wrong," Versteeg said.

To make matters worse, when she asked what would happen to the credit if Smith were to die, she said she was told it would remain with Bell.

"People just give up because they just make it such a battle," Versteeg said, wondering how many other seniors are in the same position with a credit and don't realize it.

"To try to get anywhere with them is just discouraging. And I see that in Theresa. That's hard. She's 88 years old."

Smith wishes Bell would "just have a heart. I just wish they'd hear me," she said.

Bell responds, but won't offer refund

Bell declined a request for an interview.

In a written statement, spokesperson Katie Hatfield said: "Customers pay in advance for prepaid wireless services, so there are no monthly bills."

She points out Bell's prepaid terms of service explain that credits are non-refundable and that Bell did offer to use the credit to pay her cellphone for 44 months.

"As a further goodwill gesture, we will be in touch with Ms. Smith to offer the credit on her home phone, TV and internet services," Hatfield said.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.

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