CBC poll suggests Canadians want a credit card 'bill of rights'

Canadians feel powerless when it comes to their credit cards — whether the problem is high interest rates, confusing fine print, or hidden fees — and they want a consumers' "bill of rights" to protect them, according to an Ekos poll conducted for CBC's Marketplace.

Canadians feel powerless when it comes to their credit cards — whether the problem is high interest rates, confusing fine print or hidden fees — and they want a consumers' "bill of rights" to protect them, according to an Ekos poll conducted for CBC's Marketplace.

At this time of widespread financial uncertainty, respondents to a four-day survey conducted Feb. 12-16 were asked, "Would you support a credit card bill of rights that would provide legal protections for consumers in their dealings with companies that issue credit cards?"

Eighty-two per cent of respondents answered yes.

The poll was done as part of a larger investigation by the CBC's investigative consumer program Marketplace (Friday, 8:30 p.m.) into hidden charges lurking on some credit card bills.

Keith MacIsaac of North Sydney, N.S., was unwittingly paying one such charge on his Canadian Tire MasterCard for years.

Highlights of the Marketplace-EKOS poll:

  • 23% with balance insurance say they weren't given full disclosure when it was sold to them.
  • 22% with the insurance say it was never explained that the policy was optional.
  • 51% with the insurance say it was never explained that the policy would not pay their entire balance if they lost their job or fell ill.
  • 56% with the insurance said it was never explained the insurance wouldn't cover pre-existing medical problems.

The charge is called "credit balance insurance." It's supposed to protect cardholders in case of accidental illness or death, or if they lose their jobs, by covering credit card payments.

MacIsaac was upset by his discovery and suggested a solution: "Perhaps the time has come for a credit card 'bill of rights' in Canada to protect consumers."

Marketplace co-host Wendy Mesley said MacIsaac isn't alone.

"Some people feel betrayed by banks and stores they thought they could trust," Mesley said.

Credit card issuers pitch it as offering "peace of mind." Here's advertising copy from Canadian Tire MasterCard: "What if you lost your job? How would you make your MasterCard payments? Help secure your finances with Credit Protector."

Expensive insurance

What the ad doesn't mention is how expensive balance insurance can be — and how little it can pay off. The average price is about $1 for every $100 spent. For instance, with a $2,000 balance, the insurance alone would cost $20 a month.

Insurance expert Jim Bullock called the insurance "a very poor deal" for consumers.

Bullock said expensive premiums don't pay off in the end, because if you lose your job, the insurance only covers your minimum monthly payment, which is usually less than three per cent of the total balance.

Fully 51 per cent of those polled who have the insurance, however, said they didn't know it only covers the minimum monthly payments if you lose your job or get sick.

Moreover, 56 per cent said they were never told the insurance wouldn't cover pre-existing medical problems. Then there are those who didn't know they had the insurance or didn't realize it was optional: about a quarter of those surveyed.

Marketplace interviewed consumers who had unwittingly paid hundreds and thousands of dollars for the insurance, and have fought to get their money back.

In the United Kingdom, this type of insurance has caused a huge outcry and investigation. The government there has cracked down on credit card and loan-insurance schemes. There is even a new ban against selling this insurance alongside credit card applications, and lenders have been fined millions of pounds.

Weren't given full disclosure

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada is the government's watchdog over financial institutions, but when interviewed, its commissioner, Ursula Menke, didn't know about the U.K. decision. After Marketplace told Menke how people feel they've been misled about this insurance, she promised to look into it.

Marketplace's "Credit Card Catch" airs Friday night at 8:30 p.m. on CBC.

The CBC-EKOS survey was conducted Feb. 12-16 using Ekos's hybrid internet-telephone research panel. In total, a random sample of 1,036 Canadians aged 18 and over responded to the survey. A sample of this size provides an error margin of plus or minus 3.0 percentage points, 19 times of 20.

Ekos said the data were statistically weighted to ensure the sample reflected the Canadian population according to census data.