A Christmas call for cell-phone shock protection

By MPP Toby Barrett

As we near the holiday season, a recent report indicating cell-phones and tablets are topping many Christmas wish lists took me back to my most recent speech in the Ontario Legislature just before Mr. McGuinty pulled the plug.

The evening of October 15th, the Wireless Services Agreements Act was being debated to, “strengthen consumer protection” for cell phone, smart phone, and tablet wireless contracts. One hour after I finished my speech, Mr. McGuinty announced his resignation, and the bill joined other legislation and committee inquiries in being shut down due to the prorogation of the house.
The loss of Bill 82 provides added disappointment given the fact that surprise fees and hard-to-understand wireless contracts continue to hit consumers with what government has referred to as ‘cell shock’. In fact, about 62 per cent of all complaints received by the federal government are about wireless service.
I think of a case where a young fellow was talked into buying a $400 cell phone at a shopping mall fly-by-night kiosk. It turned out no service was included and by the time his parents returned to the mall, the vendor had disappeared.
Bill 82 was actually the second aborted attempt by government members to provide consumer protection for wireless contracts. Previously, the Wireless Phone, Smart Phone and Data Service Transparency Act, went through second reading debate before dying on the order paper.
Both this Private Members Bill – Bill 5 – and the government legislation – Bill 82 – contained consumer protection initiatives that may have proven useful for those unwrapping the latest wireless offerings under the tree.
Both bills proposed full disclosure on all fees.
Improving transparency with respect to automatic renewal and ensuring that there is the express consent of the consumer before the contract is renewed is equally important. To that end the now deposed Bills 82 and 5 would have ensured that fixed-term contracts cannot be renewed, extended or amended without the consumer’s express consent.

Depending on the type of agreement a wireless consumer has entered, Bill 82 would have also allowed for cancellation of agreements at any time with caps on cancellation fees – or no fee at all!

The government legislation went on to call for inclusive price advertising that would prominently show total cost, and the right for consumers forced to sue a company to recover three times the amount of a refund that is owed.
While we await provincial government action –media polls show 94 per cent of consumers want more protection – here are a few pointers for consumers to follow when pursuing a Christmas season wireless contract:
* Shop around: Since many wireless agreements are for a two-year or three-year period, be sure you’re getting the deal offering the services and goods you want, at the best price.
* Keep a copy: Ask for a written copy of your contract. Read the fine print to make sure you understand all of the terms before you sign.
* Compare and contrast: When you get your first bill, check it carefully against your contract to be sure you are only being billed for what you agreed to.
In the meantime, while Christmas shoppers will receive no protection from its Ontario government any time soon, federally, the CRTC is now preparing to regulate wireless contract concerns.