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Competition Bureau says new rules may be needed to crack down on aggressive telecom sales tactics

As the CRTC prepares for a public hearing on telecom sales practices, Canada’s competition watchdog says new regulations may be needed to rein in aggressive practices.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is investigating the sale of television, phone and internet services amid complaints that some of the country’s biggest companies have targeted vulnerable groups such as seniors with misleading and aggressive tactics, leaving consumers feeling duped and frustrated.

In a filing on Thursday, the deadline for comments ahead of the public hearing that will begin Oct. 22, the Competition Bureau said existing rules and protections, which focus on illegal conduct such as outright deception, might not be enough.

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“Certain sales techniques may intend to pressure the consumer into a purchase decision, often through the use of emotional appeals or demands for immediate decisions before the consumer has had a chance to reflect on the offer or conduct additional research,” the bureau said.

If the CRTC finds that type of pressure is harming consumers or other competitors in the market, the Competition Bureau said new regulations might be required (though it emphasized that the CRTC should take a cautious approach to over-regulating the sector and impeding competition).

At least one of Canada’s biggest telecom providers, Telus Corp., says the existing rules are sufficient. But Zainul Mawji, vice-president of home solutions at the Vancouver-based company says consumers do need a more standardized and centralized process to protect their rights.

“We’re proposing a new code of conduct ... that would be specific to aggressive or misleading sales practices,” she said in an interview.

Ms. Mawji said she does not believe Telus falls into the same category as its peers in terms of pressuring or taking advantage of customers, pointing to consistently low numbers of formal complaints about the company as well as its industry-leading low rate of subscriber turnover.

In its annual report for 2016-17, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services (CCTS) said less than 7 per cent were about Telus, which is Canada’s third-largest telecom provider. BCE Inc. accounted for 36 per cent of complaints while Rogers Communications Inc. attracted 12 per cent of complaints. (None of those figures include complaints about the wireless discount brands the companies operate, such as Koodo for Telus, Fido for Rogers and Virgin Mobile for BCE.)

“It’s clear that we are 100-per-cent committed to rectify issues that arise with our customers right away,” Ms. Mawji said, adding that the fact that the CRTC proceeding has been convened suggests “perhaps that’s not the same standard across the industry and therefore there might be some room to improve the accessibility for customers to file complaints.”

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As of Thursday afternoon, the CRTC had received and posted more than 1,200 comments on its website, the vast majority of them from individuals complaining about bad experiences.

The federal department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) ordered the CRTC to hold the public inquiry following a series of reports by the CBC that raised questions about misleading advertising and inappropriate upselling in the telecom industry.

CBC’s initial coverage focused on allegations about BCE sales representatives facing pressure to sell vulnerable people – such as seniors and persons with disabilities – products they do not need. Follow-up stories included similar complaints about Rogers.

Formal submissions from the major telecom providers were not available before The Globe and Mail’s publication deadline on Thursday.

In an e-mail to The Globe, BCE spokesman Marc Choma noted his company serves more than 22 million customers, adding, “We look forward to participating in the CRTC process to demonstrate how Bell’s focus on customer service enables us to succeed in a highly competitive marketplace.”

Rogers spokeswoman Sarah Schmidt said in an e-mail statement that the company is "committed to being clear, simple and fair with our customers every time they contact us.”

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Shaw Communications Inc., which is the largest cable provider in Western Canada and also operates regional wireless carrier Freedom Mobile, declined to comment for this story.

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