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Bell hit with $10-million penalty for 'tricking consumers'

A Bell public telephone booth in downtown Montreal


An increasingly assertive Competition Bureau has gone after the largest communications company in the country, forcing BCE Inc. to pay $10-million for misleading consumers in a case that could ripple beyond the sector.

The bureau alleged that since December, 2007, Bell has misrepresented to consumers the prices of some of its wireless, Internet, home phone and satellite TV services by tacking on hidden fees that make its advertised price impossible to obtain. Although Bell said it "fundamentally disagrees" with the bureau's findings, it has agreed to pay the considerable sum and align its "non-compliant advertising," as well as pay an additional $100,000 to cover the cost of the agency's investigation.

Competition Bureau Commissioner Melanie Aitken, who has made a name for herself championing consumers against other big sectors such as airlines and real estate, said she hopes the size and severity of Bell's penalty sends a clear message about obfuscating the true cost of goods and services in Canada.

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"They were tricking consumers by burying mandatory fees in fine-print disclaimers," Ms. Aitken said in an interview. "We're very hopeful, and anticipate, that this will send a signal. I mean, it is a pretty substantial penalty … And by no means would I limit that to this industry."

The telecom sector is infamous for burying additional costs or contractual obligations in fine print, particularly in wireless, where consumers are often hit with extra fees when they try to switch providers. Ms. Aitken said she was not at liberty to say whether other, similar investigations are taking place, either into Bell's rivals in the Canadian telecom sector or other companies.

Bell spokesman Mark Langton said in an e-mail, "Our advertising always has and always will comply with all applicable laws and regulations. That would include aligning with the bureau's new view."

This is not the first time Ms. Aitken's bureau has targeted big telecom companies: Late last year, the bureau said it was taking Rogers Communications Inc. to court seeking a $10-million penalty over "misleading" advertising related to Rogers' new wireless rivals, such as Wind Mobile. Rogers has denied the charges, and is planning on battling the bureau's lawyers in court.

This week, the newly emboldened bureau - which was granted sweeping new powers in 2009 - came out against a proposed joint venture between Air Canada and United Continental, after taking aggressive stances against credit card and gasoline companies.

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