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Ms. Ursula Menke
Canadian Radio-Television and
BY FAX AND EMAIL
Dear Ms. Menke:
Re: Public Notice CRTC 2002-2: 900 Service
1. The following comments are submitted on behalf of the Consumers' Association of Canada, the National Anti-Poverty Organization, and l'Union des consommateurs (“the Consumer Groups”, previously “ARCetal”), pursuant to the above-mentioned Public Notice.
2. Unfortunately, very limited data on customer complaints regarding 900 services has been made available to interested parties by way of the record of this proceeding. The Commission has provided no data on the complaints it has received, and the Companies have provided limited data in response to an interrogatory from the Consumer Groups. Our understanding of the problems experienced by consumers with 900 services is accordingly limited.
3. Nevertheless, the data provided by the Companies is revealing. Most notably, it shows that customer complaints regarding 900 services are on the increase. Moreover, Bell's internal complaints data over a five month period suggests that complaint volumes are high (app.1,360/mo. in Ontario alone). The vast majority of these (78%) are first time occurrences.
4. The fact that Bell has seen fit to establish a dedicated group of service representatives for the purpose of handling customer complaints regarding 900 services in Ontario is further evidence of significant ongoing problems with 900 services.
5. Data provided by the Companies indicates that the most common complaint by far is that the call was not made (“denies call made” and “disputed the call”). “Call not authorized” is another common complaint. Less frequent, but still significant, are complaints that the caller was not aware of the charge.
6. Anecdotal evidence provides further insight as to the problems experienced by consumers with 900 services. Consistent with the Companies' data, most of the complaints of which the Consumer Groups are aware deal with disputed charges appearing on telephone bills. For example, people have complained to PIAC and the Consumer Groups about being billed for 900 services they claim not to have used, and for which the telephone company refuses (at least initially) to waive charges.
7. Another problem of which we are aware is unsolicited call-backs by 900 service operators to previous callers to the 900 service. It would appear that 900 service operators are collecting telephone numbers of incoming calls (e.g., through “900 Caller Identifier”), and using that information to solicit repeat business from past users, without the users' knowledge or consent. That such practices are currently prohibited under s.3.15 of the Service Provider Agreement does not appear to have solved the problem.
8. Other problems are suggested by the telephone companies' own rules, such as their refusal to provide billing services to 900 services that use “repetitive scripts, long holding periods, extraneous verbiage or long downloading procedures as a means of prolonging the call”.
9. In the Consumer Groups's submission, while the available evidence is limited in terms of elucidating the specific aspects of 900 service that cause problems for consumers, it does identify a number of specific problems, and does show that the current regime governing 900 services is inadequate. Clearly, much more needs to be done to prevent the problems driving these complaints.
10. The current regulatory regime governing 900 services includes a number of consumer protections by way of the agreements between the 900 service providers and the telephone carriers. This regime centers around the following safeguards:
1. Subscribers are thus protected against 900 calls from their line that they did not authorize and can't control (via charge waivers and blocking), and callers are protected against unexpected charges for calls made by them to 900 services (via the preamble in each call).
2. However, the current regime is flawed in a number of respects. Below is a brief outline of some key respects in which the current regime needs to be improved. More detailed discussion of each, along with other suggestions, follows under separate headings.
3. First, the level of protection differs depending on whether or not the 900 service provider obtains billing and accounts receivable services from the telephone company. For the reasons set out below, under “Uniform Application of Consumer Safeguards”, the Consumer Groups submit that the same consumer safeguards should apply regardless of billing arrangements between 900 service providers and telcos, unless impractical. In particular, the right to a waiver of charges for first-time calls should apply in all cases.
4. Second, the existing safeguards are inadequate. They can and should be improved and supplemented so as to provide better protection against unauthorized and unintentional calls. See below, under “Additional Safeguards that should be implemented”. In particular, charge-backs should be automatic for first-time disputes; blocking should be free of charge; consent to incur charges should be demonstrated via positive action by the caller; and advance notice of per-call charges should be required in all cases, except where over-ridden by the consumer.
5. Finally, it should be recognized that a consumer protection regime centered around blocking and advance notice of charges leaves a gap: those subscribers who wish to have access to 900 services from their own lines, but who cannot stop unauthorized calls from being made. Such subscribers must choose between blocking their own access to 900 service or accepting responsibility for unauthorized calls. This gap could be covered through the option of personal password access to 900 services.
6. The Companies have proposed a number of revisions to the existing agreements with 900 service providers, by way of Tariff Notices 740 and 741. The Consumer Groups support the revisions proposed in TN 740. As noted by the Commission in Telecom Order 2002-143, the proposed changes provide additional consumer safeguards without unduly burdening the service providers. However, the proposed revisions do not go far enough.
7. With respect to the proposed safeguard when 900 services are accessed via the Internet, the Consumer Groups note that the proposed wording in s.1.1(q) of the ARM Agreement requires that “Before charges commence, Callers to Internet protocol based 900 services must mouse click on an “I Agree” button, or otherwise clearly indicate their consent.” (emphasis added) The Consumer Groups are concerned that this provision may be interpreted as permitting negative option consent. In order for consumers to be effectively protected against unintentional 900 service calls via the Internet, it is critical that this rule clearly require an “opt-in” form of consent. We therefore propose that the phrase “through an opt-in process” be added to the end of the sentence quoted above.
8. While the Consumer Groups support the reduction of maximum charges for games of chance from $25 to $5, they submit that even $5 per call is too high for such services. Indeed, Quebec law stipulates a maximum charge of $0.50 for entry into games of chance. The Consumer Groups submit that the Quebec law provides an appropriate benchmark and that games of chance offered by 900 service providers across Canada should charge in a manner consistent with the most stringent provincial law. The maximum charge for games of chance offered via 900 services should therefore be $0.50.
9. Without evidence of customer demand, the Consumer Groups do not support the TN 741 proposal to double the maximum per call charge to psychic lines from $100 to $200. While some consumers may be willing to pay this much in order to maintain continuity of service, the Companies have provided no evidence of significant customer demand for increasing this limit. At the same time, there is evidence that customers are being taken advantage of by these services, and therefore need the protection of maximum per call charges (e.g., the Ottawa Citizen article referred to in The Companies(CRTC)9Apr02-11).
10. However, the Consumer Groups do support the lowering of the per minute charge for psychic line services, from $10 to $6, in keeping with current billing practices. There is no reason to permit rates higher than are currently being charged for this type of service. If anything, per minute rates should be capped at a lower rate than $6.
11. If the per call maximum charge for psychic lines is increased, the Consumer Groups submit that 900 service providers should be required to inform callers when their bill has reached certain amounts (e.g., at $50 intervals).
Indeed, such a notice requirement should be considered whenever the maximum per call charge is over $50. Such a warning would remind callers that they are running up a large bill, and that the responsibility for such bill is theirs.
12. Even with the company's proposed new safeguards, consumers will remain inadequately protected against unauthorized and unintentional 900 service charges. The Consumer Groups therefore propose the following additional safeguards:
13. Section 6.4 of the ARM Agreement provides for the waiver of disputed charges where “reasonably disputed pursuant to each Company's collection procedures for 900 service”, and where the disputed charges “pertain to calls made before a Caller has had the opportunity to avail himself of call blocking for 900 service”.
14. As noted above, anecdotal evidence suggests that some companies may be applying an unreasonably high standard to the first part of this test. A waiver-of-charges policy is only fair, given that 900 services are blocked only upon request rather than by default, and that telephone service is commonly shared among household members including, in many cases, children and mentally impaired individuals. Hence, subscribers are put at risk of unwillingly and unintentionally incurring large bills for 900 service, not by their own desire but rather by a regulatory regime which exposes them to such liability without their knowledge.
15. As long as the ability to make calls to 900 service providers is automatically provided to subscribers (rather than provided upon request), it is only fair that first time billing disputes are resolved in the subscriber's favour, where any doubt exists. Such service charge waivers should be provided automatically upon dispute.
16. The Consumer Groups therefore submit that the charge-back rule should be modified so as to apply to all first-time disputed charges.
The fact that the Caller has never incurred 900 charges in the past, and has not yet been informed of the call blocking option, is proof enough of the reasonableness of the dispute. Telephone companies should not be in a position of judging the “reasonableness” of the dispute beyond these clear parameters.
Immediate notification of first-time 900 service charges over $50
17. Prior to the rule requiring service charge waivers and charge-backs in the context of 976 services, the CRTC required Bell Canada to notify subscribers “in writing whenever their total charges for 976 Service during a single billing period has exceeded $50.00 and, in addition, to make one attempt by telephone to notify subscribers directly”. This rule was retracted at the time that the charge-back rule was implemented.
18. If all first-time 900 service charges that are disputed by the customer are charged-back as a matter of course, then a notification requirement is not needed to protect consumers against liability. However, as noted above, the current charge-back rule includes a reasonableness test that can be, and apparently is in some cases, used by the companies to deny customers immediate reversal of the disputed charges.
19. If telephone companies continue to be arbiters of the reasonableness of customer disputes regarding first-time 900 service charges, an immediate notification rule should be implemented. Waiting up to 30 days before notifying customers of the fact that they have (for the first time) incurred substantial charges attributable to 900 service use, exposes customers to significant billing risk. Immediate notification by telephone would likely reduce the magnitude of charge-backs as well as the number of complaints that the companies have to deal with.
20. If the charge-back rule is not modified as proposed above, the Consumer Groups therefore submit that telephone companies should be required to notify customers immediately, by telephone, of any first-time 900 service charges over $50.
21. Such notification should include instruction on how to block future calls to 900 service charges. The Consumer Groups further submit that an immediate notification requirement should be considered in any case, given the additional benefits that it provides to both customers and telephone companies. Specifically, such notification would serve to reduce customer anxiety, customer time and effort involved in disputing the charges, and company time and resources spent dealing with complaints. Given the amount of resources currently deployed by Bell in the resolution of 900 service disputes, the costs of such notification might be less than the savings in terms of fewer disputes.
22. Some disputes involve 900 service charges to previous users of the service (i.e. subscribers who do not qualify for the waiver of charges under Art.6.4 of the ARM). Such disputes do not automatically qualify for charge-backs, as long as the customer was offered (and refused) call blocking. Bell's internal data, for example, indicates that close to one quarter of complaints do not involve first time occurrences, and 12% of complainants are not provided with a credit. In such circumstances, the dispute may not be resolved between the customer and the telephone company. The Consumer Groups submit that unresolved disputes should be dealt with in an expeditious and fair manner.
23. Specifically, where billing disputes have not been resolved within a given period (e.g., 30 days), they should be submitted to the CRTC for a ruling. Customers should not be charged interest on amounts in dispute.
24. As noted above, blocking of 900 calls is an integral aspect of the consumer protection regime applicable to this service. The alternative – blocking all 900 calls unless and until the consumer requests access to the service – should be considered if the current regime continues to generate high numbers of consumer complaints.
25. As noted in The Companies(ARCetal)27May02-2, most customers who complain about 900 service order call blocking when it is offered to them. Moreover, it appears that where call blocking is offered free of charge (e.g., by TELUS), many more customers take it. In Bell's case, 56% of complainants to the Executive Office and/or CRTC ordered call blocking. Of its recorded complaints, TELUS reports that 91% take call blocking as part of resolution of the complaint. These statistics suggest that the $10 fee is a deterrent to some customers.
26. The justification for the $10 blocking fee appears to have been two-fold:
1. The Consumer Groups submit that both of these justifications should be re-examined.
2. First, Company costs have changed significantly over time. Data on which the $10 charge was first established is, in the Companies' own words, “so dated that it would be of little value in this proceeding”. In particular, it is likely that the costs of provisioning call blocking are substantially less now than they were at the time that the tariff was approved. Given that the call blocking fee is a deterrent for some customers who could benefit from the service, the Consumer Groups submit that the fee for it should be eliminated, or at least lowered to a level justified by reference to Phase II costs.
3. Second, any fear that some customers might use free call blocking frivolously is unsupported by the evidence. The Companies state that they “are unaware of any frivolous requests for 900 call denial/blocking”. The Consumer Groups can imagine no circumstances under which a request for 900 service blocking would be considered frivolous. Hence, there is no need to apply any fee for this service, other than to compensate the Companies for the incremental costs of providing it.
4. TELUS charges an administrative fee of $18 to remove or subsequently add call blocking. The Consumer Groups submit that this charge is inappropriate and contrary (in spirit if not technically) to the rule that a maximum of $10 be charged for this service. TELUS should be required to lower this fee to no more than $10.
5. The Companies note that “where the 900 charges are billed on the Companies' bills, callers may call the appropriate company directly and receive information about the time and duration of the call as well as the identity of the service provider and the service provider's toll-free inquiry line.”
6. In the USA, the Federal Trade Commission “900 Number Rule” stipulates that for each 900 call billed by the telephone company, the statement should include the date, time and, for services that have per-minute rates, the length of the call. These charges must appear separately from local and long distance charges.
7. While the Consumer Groups have not surveyed the Companies' billing practices re: 900 services in order to determine whether they provide this information, the Companies' response to ARC et al's interrogatory on point (quoted above) suggests that they do not always provide time and duration of the call.
8. The Consumer Groups submit that the minimum disclosure requirements on telephone bills set out by the FTC are appropriate and should be adopted by the CRTC. The more information that consumers have on their bill statements about 900 service charges, the less likely it is that they will need to call the telephone company with questions about the charges.
9. The same billing disclosure requirements should apply to 900 service providers who bill directly, and to any other agents billing on behalf of the 900 service provider.
Telephone companies should not be permitted to disconnect, or threaten to disconnect, local or long distance service for failure to pay 900 service charges
10. The Consumer Groups are concerned, based on anecdotal information, that some companies may be threatening individual customers with disconnection if 900 service charges appearing on their bills are not paid. It is not clear how widespread this problem is. In any case, it would be helpful to establish a clear rule that failure to pay 900 service charges cannot result in disconnection of any service other than access to 900 services.
11. Subscribers are made vulnerable to unauthorized and unintentional 900 service calls by a regulatory regime which allows unlimited access to 900 services as a matter of default (rather than by customer choice). It is therefore completely inappropriate for telephone companies to threaten disconnection of local or long distance services for failure to pay 900 service charges. The appropriate measure to take in such a circumstance is to disconnect the customer from 900 services, not from basic local or long distance services.
12. The CRTC should do as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has done in the USA, and expressly prohibit disconnection of local or long distance service for failure to pay 900 number charges.
900 service providers should be made subject to collection practice rules reflecting industry standards and best practices
13. In Order CRTC 2001-502, dated 29 June 2001, the Commission directed Bell Canada to amend its ARM agreement with 976 providers to include the same list of prohibited practices, with necessary changes, as exist in the relevant provincial collection agency legislation and regulations. (Bell had proposed that 976 providers be required to use collection agencies that are provincially licensed, rather than in-house bill collection.)
14. Given “persistent complaints from callers about collection practices associated with 976 program calls that have been previously charged back and absorbed by a 976 SP”, as noted by Bell Canada in its application, the Commission considered that “in-house collection activities by a 976 service provider should follow the same practices in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec as those set out in the respective acts and regulations for third-party collection activities”.
15. The Companies state that the concerns about 976 collection practices do not exist with 900 services. While unethical/annoying collection practices do not appear to be the subject of many complaints reported in The Companies(ARCetal)27May02-1, the Consumer Groups submit that there is insufficient evidence on the record to conclude that they are not a significant cause of complaints regarding 900 services.
16. The Companies also point out in response to the ARC et al interrogatory that laws and regulations apply in any case, and therefore don't need to be repeated in contracts. While this is true, the Consumer Groups submit that reminding parties of certain statutory obligations by way of the agreements, where compliance with such obligations has been problematic in the past, is likely to improve compliance and is therefore desirable.
17. For these reasons, unless it can be conclusively shown that unethical/annoying collection practices by 900 service providers are not a cause of consumer complaints, the Consumer Groups submit that the same rules regarding collection practices applicable to 976 providers should apply to 900 service providers.
18. Moreover, the Consumer Groups submit that the collection and reporting to credit bureaus of disputed 900 service charges should be prohibited, until the company handling the dispute has provided the customer with a full explanation of why it considers the charges legitimate, and the Commission has upheld the company's right to collect
19. The limited data provided by the Companies on 900 service complaints shows that in some cases, the caller claims not to have been aware of the charge. Further measures, beyond those already in place and proposed by the Companies, can be taken to reduce these types of complaints. First, the preamble requirement should be extended to all 900 service calls, with the sole exception of caller-controlled bypass.
20. Article 3.4 of the SP Agreement sets out the preamble requirement. Exceptions to this requirement include situations where:
1. The Consumer Groups submit that the first exception to this rule should be removed, as it leaves open the potential for callers to be charged when they did not expect to be so charged. While charges of $3 per call may be considered trivial by some, $3 is a significant amount for many customers, and in any case can accumulate to a large amount over a 30 day period. To the extent that complaints involve charges for 900 service calls falling into this category, removing the exception for flat per call charges under $3 would likely reduce the incidence of unintentional 900 service activation, and hence the number of complaints.
2. Another measure that would reduce the likelihood of 900 service callers being charged more than they expected for the call, is to require 900 service providers to obtain a positive indication from the caller that they wish to continue with the call, after the preamble setting out the applicable fees. This can be done at minimal cost and with little inconvenience to the customer, in the same way that IVR systems commonly require customers to “press #” in order to continue.
3. Another way of limiting the damage caused by easily accessible 900 services is to prohibit 900 service providers from pressuring callers to use the service again, or encouraging them to call other 900 services. The Consumer Groups are not aware of the extent to which such practices contribute to the current level of consumer dissatisfaction with this service, but it is possible that they are part of the problem. Unless it can be conclusively shown that the practices in question are not a problem, such safeguards are appropriate. In any case, precautionary measures such as this are prudent even where there may be no clear evidence of abuse.
4. As long as games of chance are offered via 900 numbers, it is important that consumers be fully informed of their options with respect to entering the game of chance. In particular, callers should be informed of any free ways to enter a game of chance offered through the 900 service both in general advertising and at the commencement of all calls to the 900 number in question, prior to any charges being applied.
5. Another potential cause of unintentional 900 service calls is the linking of toll-free numbers with 900 numbers, such that customers may believe they are making a toll-free call when in fact they are being channeled into a pay-per-use calling service. For this reason, the FTC 900 Number Rule prohibits the following practices:
1. The Consumer Groups submit that similar safeguards are appropriate for Canadian consumers.
2. The Consumer Groups strongly support the application of the same consumer safeguards to all 900 (and 976) service providers, not just those who choose to bill through the Companies. Consumers deserve to be protected from the same abusive practices regardless of billing arrangements between the 900 providers and telephone companies. Exceptions to uniformity of safeguards should be fully justified.
3. In addition to the new safeguards proposed above, the following existing safeguards which currently exist in the 900 Service ARM agreements should therefore also be included in 900/976 Service Provider Agreements and tariffs for 900 (and 976) services:
1. In the Consumer Groups' submission, all of the above protections, which currently apply when 900 services are billed through the Companies, should also apply when 900 service provider bill consumers directly.
2. It is revealing that the Companies refuse to deal with certain types of 900 services, and indeed that they are considering withdrawing their 900 billing and collection service (The Companies(CRTC)9Apr02-14). Clearly, the cost to them of dealing with consumer complaints regarding 900 services – at least those of the types listed in Schedule “C” to the ARM – outweigh the revenues obtained from such 900 services. It follows that the very services that are not subject to the ARM Agreement (and hence the consumer protections therein) are the most likely to generate consumer complaints (and hence the most deserving of consumer protections). If anything, consumers need more protection, not less, in respect of direct-billed 900 services.
3. The Companies do not object to the application of service charge waiver requirements in the Service Provider Agreements and/or relevant tariffs: The Companies(CRTC)9Apr02-15. They do, however, object to the application of service-specific prohibitions and maximum charges, on the grounds that such restrictions would “amount to a form of control over the content or meaning of calls”, contrary to s.36 of the Telecommunications Act and possibly s.2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
4. The Consumer Groups submit that the service-specific restrictions proposed above would be approved by the Commission and would therefore meet the requirements of s.36 of the Telecommunications Act. Moreover, such restrictions, even if they were found to infringe the right to free speech, would meet the Charter requirement of being demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
5. In particular, the Consumer Groups note that the restrictions in question would not limit the ability of 900 service providers to offer their services. Rather, they would simply limit the charges that can be applied for certain types of services, and prohibit charges where the service prolongs the call unnecessarily. None of these restrictions unduly limit freedom of expression on the part of 900 service providers. To the extent that they infringe s.2(b) of the Charter, they do so in the aid of an important and legitimate goal: consumer protection, and would only involve only a minimal impairment of the right to free expression.
6. The Consumer Groups further propose that the privacy principles included in Schedule “D” to the ARM should also be included in the Service Provider Agreements.
7. These principles have been made law via the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which presumably applies to 900 service providers (almost all of which operate across provincial boundaries). Hence, it can be argued that they apply in any case and therefore need not be repeated in the service provider agreements. In response, The Consumer Groups submit that it is helpful to remind 900 service providers of their obligations when collecting caller information, by way of this Schedule.
8. Moreover, if there is any doubt about the application of PIPEDA to 900 service providers, then the rules should definitely be made part of the Service Provider agreements, such that customer privacy is properly protected.
The Commission should issue termination orders and should pursue offenders under s.73 of the Telecommunications Act
9. One problem with the current 900 service regime has to do with repeated violations of existing rules. The current approach to enforcement of 900 service rules appears to be inadequate.
10. It is critical that any rules, existing as well as new, are properly enforced. There is no point in creating rules that can be disregarded without consequence.
11. The only enforcement tool currently being used appears to be termination of service by the ILEC under the service agreement. According to the Companies, Bell disconnected 64 service providers for breaches of the ARM or SP agreements between 15 Sept 1999 and 14 March 2002. The vast majority of these disconnections (56) were for content violations. Eight (8) were disconnected due to misleading or deceptive preamble/advertising.
12. The Companies note that disconnection is part of the larger sanction of termination. Based on their experience, they “view termination as a sanction with limited effectiveness”. In particular, they note that:
1. Clearly, reliance on voluntary telephone company disconnection for enforcement of consumer protection regulations affecting 900 service is inadequate. The Companies themselves state that “in certain circumstances, …it would be appropriate for the Commission to take a more active role in sanctioning non-compliant 900 service providers”. The Consumer Groups therefore propose that the CRTC make disconnection orders when appropriate, based on complaints received or referred to them by the telephone companies.
2. In addition, the Consumer Groups note that s.73(2)(b) of the Telecommunications Act provides for prosecutions where a condition of service under s.24 of the Act has been contravened. Because the Service Provider Agreement is approved by the CRTC, the safeguards in it constitute “conditions of service”, as do the rules set out in relevant ILEC tariffs. As with telemarketing abuses, the CRTC should establish a streamlined process under which such prosecutions take place as a matter of course when 900 service providers are clearly violating the rules.
All of which is respectfully submitted,
Counsel for The Consumer Groups
cc: Interested Parties, PN 2002-2CRTC proceeding