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Slick sales pitches trap seniors in costly contracts


Last April, Ontario took a first step to ban unsolicited door-to-door sales of furnaces, air conditioners, water heaters and other products.

It passed a law to protect consumers from being pushed into signing contracts with high monthly costs and even higher cancellation fees.

The regulations come into force March 1. It’s the start of a new regime aimed at protecting consumers from deception at the door.

This is a cause I’ve championed over the past two decades. I get many complaints about the abusive treatment of seniors by sales agents ambushing them at their homes.

Here are stories of two older widows who fell for slick pitches and signed contracts for home services. To preserve privacy, I’m not using their names.

The first woman, 92, has failing vision and qualifies as legally blind. Last July, she was persuaded to sign a 10-year contract to install a high-efficiency air filter for her furnace.

A salesman for Ontario Home Services came to her townhouse and identified himself as being with Energy Protection Care (a company that services equipment sold by OHS).

She felt comfortable speaking to him, since she had mixed up the name Energy Protection Care with Enercare and Enbridge Gas – two firms with which she already had relationships.

The salesman said she could rent an air filter for the same amount billed by Enbridge for her Enercare furnace maintenance plan and her hot water tank (about $ 50 a month).

“He promised her costs would not change,” said her friend Ian Tessier. “Her Enbridge bill would be replaced by a charge from his billing company (UtilEbill) and would cover everything she had now.”

When the first bill arrived, she saw the $ 50 charge had been added to the amount she paid for the other services – doubling her cost.

The salesman said she had to wait a month for an adjusted bill. Then, he said she would receive rebate cheques until the billing could be corrected. No rebates ever came.

Stepping up his efforts, Tessier asked Ontario Home Services to cancel the contract. But the statutory 10-day cooling off period to cancel without penalty had long passed.

He tried another tack. Under Ontario consumer law, contracts can be cancelled for up to one year if there is evidence of misrepresentation.

The company said the contract was legal because it was co-signed by the woman’s niece. The salesman drove from Toronto to St. Catharines (a distance of 115 kilometres) to enlist her, even though she didn’t have a power of attorney for her aunt’s finances.

The woman was offered a reduced rate of $ 34.95 a month or a buyout price of $ 3,550 to cancel. But after I intervened this month, along with the Better Business Bureau, OHS agreed to remove the air filter and cancel the deal at no cost.

“We understand this to be a positive outcome for OHS and demonstrative of OHS’ commitment to customer satisfaction,” said Pradeep Chand, the company’s legal counsel.

I also heard about a 76-year-old widow who signed multiple contracts for home services with different companies, adding $ 250 a month to her Enbridge gas bill.

“She’s had two hip replacements, a knee replacement and suffers from a slowly progressing degree of cognitive impairment,” her son said.

“We recently had to move her to a retirement living environment to protect her from these vultures. She was afraid to open her door.”

The woman was bound by the following contracts:

  • A water filtration system installed in 2007, costing $ 35 a month for 10 years. Her son had to pay for the last few months, plus $ 100 to have the system removed, since she still didn’t own it.
  • A second water filtration system, installed in 2014. She’d already paid $ 1,345 when she moved out and her son paid $ 3,750 to cancel the contract (down from $ 4,500 originally proposed).
  • A high-efficiency furnace and air filter system, installed in 2016 after a five-year-old furnace in great condition had been removed. She was paying $ 110 a month for 10 years for something she didn’t need, her son said, adding that he paid $ 2,000 to cancel and got a refund of all other charges to date.

In March 2017, yet another seller came to her home and signed her up for a reverse osmosis water filter under her sink and a heat recovery ventilation system. Her son cancelled the contract within 10 days and finally set up a power of attorney for her finances.

“Her Enercare maintenance plan and Reliance water heater rental fees were reasonable, but none of the others were appropriate,” her son said. “They all had to be closed to remove liens placed on the house before we could sell it to fund her long-term care.”

What did the salespeople say to get in the front door and get her to sign each contract? Was she targeted because she had white hair?

Her son suspects that after the first high-priced deal was done, she may have ended up on a “sucker list,” leading to other pitches.

Have you heard about companies exploiting cognitively challenged elders at home? I hope this column makes you ask Ontario politicians running for election this June why it took so long to regulate sellers and protect the vulnerable.

Ellen Roseman appears in Smart Money. You can reach her at eroseman@thestar.ca.

TORONTO STAR

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