TORONTO – Wireless carriers automatically renewing customers’ contracts without their consent. Clients being kept on hold for hours while trying to cancel their services. Mysterious charges from unknown third parties popping up on customers’ phone bills.
These were some of the most commonly cited allegations in hundreds of complaints lodged by consumers with the CRTC about telecom companies between January and August of 2013. The Canadian Press requested the documents via Access to Information legislation in September 2013 but did not receive them until March of this year.
A few of the appeals are heart-wrenching. One complainant alleges Bell wouldn’t stop harassing him about his deceased wife’s account, even though he had paid it off.
“Losing my wife of 45 years was hard enough, but dealing with ineptitude like this makes it even harder,” he wrote.
Bell said it works to resolve all complaints but it can’t comment on what happened in this case because it would need to know the identity of the complainant, which was redacted by the CRTC. The CRTC noted that it was copied on the complaint that was sent to Bell CEO George Cope and the federal regulator closed the file.
Another wrote to the CRTC in desperation, accusing Bell of shutting off service for an “unknown reason” and that five calls to the company had failed to resolve the problem.
“Please please help me,” the complainant wrote. “I’m 77 years old and just lost my wife and I need my phone and Bell won’t fix the error that they caused.”
In its response letter to the CRTC, Bell said it had accidentally disconnected the customer’s phone line a week earlier than requested but restored service a few days later. The customer received a $56.44 credit as a good will gesture.
Other complaints contain personal details or wacky anecdotes.
One complainant alleges Bell cut off his phone service on Halloween night, leaving him unable to pick up his girlfriend, who was left waiting for him alone outside.
Again, Bell said it works to resolve all complaints but can’t comment on this specific case without knowing the identity of the complainant. The CRTC said it does not intervene in billing, marketing practices and quality of service.
Another person alleges he was trying to get Telus service trucks to stop speeding through his neighbourhood when company employees flashed him the middle finger.
Speaking generally and not about the specific complaint, Telus spokesman Shawn Hall said the company expects its technicians to provide a high level of customer service and they try to resolve such instances immediately. The CRTC said the complaint was outside its scope.
Many of the gripes were about billing issues and were referred to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services. In one instance, Telus provided a customer with a $2,435.25 credit for erroneous charges, taxes and interest.
BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE), Rogers Communications Inc. (TSX:RCI.B) and Telus Corp. (TSX:T) say the number of complaints filed about telecom companies has been steadily declining as all three companies have worked to improve customer service.
“These specific issues demonstrate that we’re not perfect at Telus,” said Hall. “We are striving to bring the number of complaints down to zero.”
Ottawa has introduced a number of regulations in recent years to address some of the issues contained in the complaints.
In June 2013, the CRTC introduced a new wireless code that allows customers to cancel their cellphone contracts after two years without incurring penalties. The code also makes it easier for Canadians to unlock their phones so they can be used with another carrier.
The federal government has banned telecommunications companies from charging customers for paper bills, and as of late January, customers have been able to cancel their telephone, Internet and cable services without providing 30 days’ notice.
An annual report from the complaints commissioner suggests the measures are having an effect.
The commissioner accepted 11,340 complaints by the end of 2014 — down 17 per cent from the previous year.
Roughly 32 per cent — or 3,651 complaints — were about Bell, down nearly seven per cent from the previous year. Rogers and its discount brand, Fido, came in second with 3,284 complaints, a decline of about 31.5 per cent.
Telus received 653 complaints, roughly six per cent of the total and a decline of about 26 per cent.
Hall said the decline indicates that the company’s focus on improving its customer service is working.
“That said, one complaint is too many,” said Hall. “We learn from them. And if we need to change a policy or a practice, we’ll do that.”
Rogers spokeswoman Heather Robinson said the company has been investing in improving its customer service.
“Much has changed in the time since those complaints were initially lodged,” Robinson said in an email, adding that the company always checks with customers before renewing their contracts and provides refunds to clients who are billed for services via premium text messaging that they did not request.
Bell spokeswoman Jacqueline Michelis said the company works to investigate and resolve all complaints it receives.
“Bell may have a greater total number of service complaints than other companies, but it’s worth noting we are by far Canada’s largest communications company with more than 21 million customers in every province and territory,” Michelis said in an email.