Cellphone protection laws still unclear

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The federal government’s wireless code, instituted just over a year ago, promised better consumer protection for cellphone users by enshrining certain consumer rights and making contracts easier to understand.

So how’s that working out?

Looks like there’s still a lot of contract ambiguity out there and it just got Bell off the hook in a $100-million class-action suit, Sankar v. Bell Mobility.

Subscriber Celia Sankar brought the suit against Bell brands Bell Mobility, Solo Mobile, and Virgin Mobile, accusing them of breach of contract and “unjust enrichment” by deleting prepaid minutes.

Those prepaid minutes come with an expiry date and Bell seizes any unused minutes after that date unless customers “top-up,” or “buy” more. The contracts vary, so judge Edward P. Belobaba used a 30-day contract as an example.

“The core issue is whether Bell was entitled to seize unused balances on Day 31 or was contractually required to wait until Day 32,” the judgment explains.

Belobaba said the cellphone contracts made it clear that credits expiring on day 30 could be seized on day 31, so Bell did not breach any contract.

Sankar argued Bell’s prepaid phone cards are the same as gift cards and since provincial law doesn’t allow gift cards to expire, Bell was violating Ontario’s Consumer Protection Act.

The judge had an interesting ruling on that front: the law says gift cards themselves can’t expire, but it doesn’t say anything about the services provided by the card. So a card good for 30 minutes can never expire, but once you redeem the card, the minutes can have an expiry date.

Good thing those cellphone contracts are getting easier to understand. Imagine if that had been confusing at all?

But take heart, cellphone subscribers — it’s still possible to fight back when your provider gets too grabby.

Earlier this month, an Edmonton man successfully battled Rogers after the company charged him almost $300 for texts from a fortune-telling service he says he never subscribed to.

Andy Pearcey said Rogers offered him $50, then another $10 if he agreed not to complain to the media or a lawyer. A lawyer himself, who’d made little progress with his complaint, Pearcey tried the media. Shazam! Money refunded.

You might think Rogers wouldn’t be so stubborn, since it’s already under scrutiny from federal authorities for precisely this kind of problem.

In 2012, the federal Competition Bureau sued Rogers, Bell, and Telus for $10 million apiece — the maximum possible amount — alleging the companies allowed misleading third-party services to charge hefty fees to subscribers, of which they each took a share.

That suit is still in the works. Until then, keep an eye on your bill and don’t subscribe to any fortune-telling services. Our prediction: you’re in for a fight with your provider, and it could be an uphill battle.

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