Nova Scotia

'I've been cheated,' says senior with $1,400 Bell prepaid cellphone credit

An 88-year-old Nova Scotia woman's battle with Bell Canada over credits on her prepaid cellphone account has prompted more complaints about the company and questions about inconsistencies in how Bell treats its customers.

Edna Baker says Bell should allow her credit to be applied to her home service, as it did for another person

Edna Baker, 88, says she spoke to eight different Bell people about her $1,400 prepaid cellphone credit, but she's had no luck getting the matter resolved. (David Baker)

An 88-year-old Nova Scotia woman's battle with Bell Canada over credits on her prepaid cellphone account has prompted more complaints about the company and questions about inconsistencies in how Bell treats its customers.

Theresa Smith of Milford, N.S., accumulated almost $1,000 in credits on her cellphone because her plan provided her with a regular number of minutes each month for $17.25. If the minutes went unused, the money was rolled over into the following month.

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

After CBC News contacted Bell, the company said as a goodwill gesture it would allow Smith to use the credit to pay for her home Bell services. A Bell spokesperson pointed out that the terms and conditions of prepaid service clearly state that credits are non-refundable. The spokesperson also said since those accounts are prepaid, customers do not receive statements or bills.

West Ship Harbour, N.S., resident  Edna Baker, 88, can relate to Smith's situation. She carries her cellphone in case of an emergency while driving and makes her payment by automatic debit each month. Baker's credit totals $1,402.

After CBC News contacted Bell, it agreed to allow Theresa Smith to apply her prepaid cellphone credit of almost $1,000 to her home Bell account. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"I should be eligible because a precedent has now been set," Baker said.

She said she first discovered the credit on her bill when she got a notice from Bell that her existing phone would soon be obsolete. She called the designated number and was offered a more expensive package, which she declined. At that time, Baker was told she had accumulated over $1,000 in credit on the account.

She said she asked for the credit to be applied to her landline and was promised a call back, but never heard back from the company.

After reading Smith's story, Baker said she was shocked and called Bell immediately. Over the next day and a half, she spoke to eight different people, none of whom could help her.

"I just feel it's really unfair and I've been cheated," Baker said.

'It could take forever to get that money back'

She said Bell did offer to stop the automatic debits and apply the credit to her cellphone, but she said no.

"The credit is so high and I'm 88 years old. It could take forever to get that money back," she said, adding she'd be 92 before it was used up.

Baker asked, like Smith, to have the credit applied to her home Bell service, but she was told that wasn't possible.

"I don't think you can treat one person one way and somebody else another," she said. "We're all customers and we're all paying very dearly for the service."

CBC News received emails from several people saying they also had a big credit on their prepaid cell phone, yet Bell would not refund them or allow them to apply the credit to their home service. (CBC)

Dartmouth, N.S., resident Terry Fraser can sympathize with Baker. His parents are 86 and 91, and both have a cellphone for emergencies. They've had them for 10 years and seldom use them.

Their credit card is automatically debited $11.50 per month for each phone.

When they received a notice their phones were becoming obsolete and they needed to contact Bell, Fraser called on behalf of his parents. He learned they had combined credits amounting to over $2,800.

"I was floored by the amount," Fraser said.

Bell issued a refund to one Ontario woman who had built up prepaid cellphone credits of $3,403.41. (Will Muir)

He was offered another plan that included services his parents don't need, so he declined. He was told they might be able to offer a 12-month payment holiday on the automatic monthly withdrawals. Fraser then asked that the credit be applied to the home Bell service for his parents.

Fraser said the answer was an emphatic no, and he received the same response when he asked for a partial refund.

Fraser acknowledges the family should have been aware of the terms surrounding the phones, which were purchased 10 years ago.

"I understand they pay for the privilege to have a phone, but a portion also goes to pay for their minutes and they're not using them," he said.

'Lack of empathy'

Fraser said it's Bell's unwillingness to reach a solution that upsets him most.

"I just can't get over the lack of empathy for two elderly, loyal Bell customers and no desire to offer solutions and come to a reasonable outcome," Fraser said.

On Monday, Bell told Fraser they would suspend the monthly charges and use the credits until they were all used up.

Fraser said this option is better than the 12-month payment holiday that was previously offered by Bell.

Will Muir's aunt, Margaret Goosen, has dementia. He eventually convinced Bell to refund the $3,400 credit on her prepaid cellphone. (Will Muir)

Will Muir had a very different outcome dealing with Bell when he took over power of attorney for his aunt, Margaret Goosen, who suffers from dementia. He discovered Bell had been charging her on a monthly basis for over 12 years. She had a credit of $3,403.11 on her prepaid cellphone, which began what he called "a long fight."

"My main complaint was that they couldn't tell me when the phone was last turned on, which I suspect was over 10 years ago," Muir said.

He notes that when he took over his aunt's finances, he was unable to pay her Bell landline for two months. During that time, he said Bell sent three letters, the last of which threatened to terminate service if the bill wasn't paid.

"I miss two payments on her landline and they sent me three letters. A phone isn't used in over 10 years and they don't send one notice. That was my complaint to Bell," Muir said.

In the end, Bell refunded the entire amount by cheque.

Bell's response

Bell did not respond to a CBC News interview request and instead issued a statement.

"All goodwill gestures are handled on an individual basis, and take into account a variety of factors including unique customer circumstances," spokesperson Isabelle Boulet wrote.

She said many customers choose to top up their prepaid accounts with pre-authorized payments as a convenient way to ensure they have seamless access to their service. Boulet said that allows customers to use any leftover funds from the previous month for future usage. She reiterated that credits for future usage are not refundable as outlined in the terms of service.

"Topping up prepaid accounts before the expiry date each month is voluntary," Boulet said.

"Customers can always top up after the expiry date, but any unused funds from the previous month would not be rolled over for future use."

Concern over prepaid cellphone credits with Rogers

Bell isn't the only telecommunications company immersed in controversy over credits on prepaid wireless accounts.

Last year, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) filed an application with the CRTC questioning Rogers' proposal to cap credits on prepaid cellphones to $150, meaning any amount over $150 would be wiped out. Rogers recently indicated it will not implement that measure at this time and PIAC is waiting for the CRTC's ruling on the matter.

"The problem is, unfortunately, starting to get chronic and I would encourage the CRTC to give us a ruling because that will help clarify what happens to balances," PIAC's executive director, John Lawford, told CBC News.

His group has been waiting for more than a year for the CRTC to issue a decision.

John Lawford with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre says Canadians need better protection when it comes to prepaid cellphone accounts. (Christopher Gargus/CBC)

Lawford said PIAC believes customers who carry a balance on prepaid cellphones should receive written statements on a regular basis. He also said there should be a cap on how much credit can be built up. When it reaches a designated amount, Lawford believes the automatic debits should stop until the credit is used.

He noted the CRTC's previous position was that customers with prepaid cellphone plans — regardless of the company — were paying for monthly access to a service and they should use their credits or lose them.

Lawford suggests people who are upset about their credit buildup file a complaint with CCTS, an independent, industry-funded agency set up by the federal government to resolve complaints from consumers about their phone, internet and television services.

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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