Turning up the heat on door-to-door water heater scams

By MPP Toby Barrett

My caucus colleagues and I have always fought for an open and trustworthy consumer market. In fact it was Tim Hudak who tabled the Consumer Protection Act in 2002. Now that the Ontario Legislature has returned, it is important to continue the debate on Bill 55, an omnibus bill relating to consumer protection in three key areas – real estate, debt consolidation and water heater rentals.

Water heater rental issues were the number two complaint received by the Ministry of Consumer Services and I can attest my constituency office receives many complaints. Constituents often articulate their frustration of being bounced from one client service representative to another with never any real resolution.

Hardworking Ontario families, and in particular seniors, find it upsetting that what should be straightforward is instead marred by a number of questionable practices.

One of my staff recently encountered issues with a major player in the water heater rental industry when she discovered she was paying far more than her neighbors for the exact same water heater. We hear similar complaints constantly. How does this happen? And more importantly, how does one know fact from fiction anymore when it comes to what they are being charged?

There is deliberate deception, hiding of costs, and in some cases exploitation of customers’ vulnerabilities especially through door-to-door sales. Bill 55, if passed, would double the cooling-off period for water heater rentals by preventing suppliers from installing new heaters for 20 days. The Official Opposition believes the cooling off period should be extended to other contracts as well.

Currently, once a new heater is installed, if there are consumer concerns with the price and contract, cancellation charges can run up to several hundred dollars. Further, the suppliers are free to charge inappropriate amounts for damages such as small scratches on a tank that could be 10 years or older.

Sadly, consumers can be taken advantage of in more ways than one. We can’t legislate away deception and vulnerability but we can strengthen the enforcement tools to ensure taxpayers have recourse beyond having to go to court. Oftentimes victims of these so-called scams are the people who can least afford a lawyer.

When the rules are broken, recourse is often impossible or very slow. A claim by a consumer against a less-than-honest business can take months, if not years to process. This causes inevitable legal costs, stress and even health-related consequences. Last but not least, these negative experiences result in a decrease in consumer confidence.

Bill 55 would provide protection, but my colleagues and I believe the proposed legislation doesn’t go far enough in protecting those, who sometimes through no fault of their own, are running into very professional scammers.Remember if a deal sounds too good to be true….RUN.

We are all aware there are companies providing superior products and treat their customers with fairness and respect. However, times change and so do business practices. The Consumer Protection Act needs to evolve to reflect these changes for the sake of consumers and our economy — as consumer confidence plummets so does our economy. And we all know our economy needs all the help it can get right now.