BUSINESS

Seniors, poor consumers hurt by fees charged to pay bills, say New Democrats

11/07/2012 12:25 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST
OTTAWA - Making people "pay to pay" is unfair and needs to be stopped, the federal Opposition said Wednesday, urging the Harper government to ban companies from charging fees for sending monthly bills by mail.

A number of telephone, Internet and other firms have recently begun charging customers fees if they want paper bills delivered.

"Making folks pay to pay" is a cash cow that needs to be put down, said New Democrat MP Andrew Cash.

"It isn't as though these companies are offering a new service for this," Cash told a news conference.

"This is a new fee for an old service. It isn't fair."

Bell, for example, says it charges $2 to offset the costs of producing and mailing a printed bill. There is no charge for getting a bill over the Internet.

"You can save paper and save yourself the $2 charge each month by signing up for e-bill service," Bell says on its website.

Rogers Inc. also charges a $2 fee, but says it doesn't retain the money it collects.

"Instead, we’ve taken steps to ensure that proceeds are directed to where they’ll do the most good: supporting youth and basic skills education through the Rogers Youth Fund," the company said in a statement released last year when the fee came into effect.

Cash said the "pay-to-pay" fees unfairly target seniors and families already struggling to pay their bills, as well as those who do not have regular access to the Internet or don't like paying bills online.

And he said the companies reap huge savings already from customers who have voluntarily switched to online billing.

"(Consumers are losing) millions and millions of dollars, not for any new service, but simply to continue to pay the way many Canadians have always paid," he said.

The Canadian Association of Retired Persons, CARP, has received hundreds of calls and emails about the fees charged by utilities and even some banks.

The group, representing retired people across the country, said it recognizes that the world is becoming more and more digitized and that paperless bills and statements will likely become standard.

But the fees were instituted "without considering those who are less well-off or still disconnected from the Internet," said CARP.

"As a result, these individuals are penalized unfairly and forced to pay to receive their bills."

CARP wants service providers to either reverse the charges or provide exemptions for vulnerable individuals.

One organization that deals with complaints from consumers about billing said it hasn't been a big issue in the past year. Only 46 people in total registered complaints about paper billing with the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.

"I do know that this is a charge that angers customers," said commissioner Howard Maker.

But most complainants understand that the commissioner doesn't have the authority to tell service providers what to charge, he said.

The paper bill fees are just one more thing to add to a litany of charges that frustrate consumers, whether it's the telecom industry, banks or government, said interim Liberal leader Bob Rae.

"I think there's a sense out there among the consumer generally that we're being overcharged, that the fee structures that are being imposed on a number of transactions are relatively high."