04/24/2014 02:56 EDT | Updated 06/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Manitoba to crack down on misleading TV, internet service offers

The Manitoba government wants to crack down on misleading and confusing promotions for wireless, TV and internet service by forcing providers to be clear about how much their offers really cost.

The province is proposing new consumer protection rules that would require companies offering residential telephone, television, internet and other services to prominently display the full cost of each service, not just a discount introductory rate.

Consumer Protection Minister Ron Lemieux, who tabled the proposed legislation on Thursday, says people are frustrated by "confusing promotional offers" that don't give clear descriptions of how much the services will cost them once the introductory promotion period ends.

"We're not telling the consumer what they should buy or what they should not buy," Lemieux told reporters.

"We're just saying to the companies out there that are offering these services, 'Be upfront. Let the customer know clearly what [they're] going to be paying for and what [they're] going to be getting.' Then it's up to the consumer to make the decision."

Penalties include fines

If approved, the new rules would make providers include in their advertising the minimum monthly regular cost of a service after the promotional period ends, and disclose any one-time charges for equipment or installation.

There will also be limits on cancellation fees, similar to an existing law on cellphone contracts, as well as limits on automatic contract renewals.

In addition to phone, TV and internet packages, the legislation would also cover satellite TV and radio services and monitored alarm systems.

Fines would range from $1,000 to $5,000 and, in more serious cases, the government could apply to the courts for higher penalties.

But slapping fines on a company does not mean consumers who feel they've been duped should expect a refund, said Gail Anderson, director of the provincial Consumer Protection Office.

"It may be that the business decides to give the consumer a portion or a refund back, but we do not have the authority as the Consumer Protection Office to order a business to make a refund," she said.

'Not pointing the finger at anyone'

The NDP government announced the plan last fall and asked for public input, and some 360 people responded.

Many who took part in public consultations said they had been enticed by low, introductory prices and were not clear on what the price would be once the discount period ended, Lemieux said.

The proposed changes are not targeting local companies, but simply seeking overall clarity for consumers, the minister added.

"The companies in Manitoba we have are very, very good companies. This is not pointing the finger at anyone," Lemieux said.

"All we're saying is that the feedback we're getting is that there's a lot of confusion out there and people want more transparency, more clarity as to what they're getting involved in."

The move was welcomed by the Consumers Association of Canada.

"Companies … have a responsibility to provide that information, to make it accessible to us in a format that is easy to understand," Gloria Desorcy, executive director of the association's Manitoba branch, told The Canadian Press.

Lemieux hopes to have the law take effect by the end of the year, but there are still many details to be worked out, such as the limit on cancellation fees.

An existing law on cellphone contracts caps the fee at $50 plus a pro-rated cost of the cellphone if it was not paid upfront.

The province must also determine exactly how "prominent" the full cost of each service must be displayed in any advertising. Anderson said the aim is to have the price easily visible and not hidden away in fine print.