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The back-to-school period is one of the busiest times of the year for Canadian telecom companies, resulting in a barrage of special promotions — which can be both a blessing and a curse for budget-minded students.

As a result, one of the most valuable life lessons for today’s university and college students presents itself at this time of year as they learn how to find what they need and drive a hard bargain.

Mohammed Halabi, a professional bargain hunter at MyBillsAreHigh.com, says buyers shouldn’t put too much faith in advertised prices and should focus on asking a salesperson for additional discounts and sweeteners to offer.

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“Unfortunately, that puts us in a position where we have to push a little harder. That’s really the main advice that I’d give to people,” Halabi says.

“You might be able to get 10 to 15 per cent off, depending on how strong the advertised rate is... Sometimes there’s not much that can be done except, maybe, getting a couple months for free.”

For example, he says, the seller might offer another month or two to a limited-time discount or include an additional service.

“It all comes down to asking and having some knowledge of other competing offers out there and using that as leverage,” Halabi says.

University graduate Debbie Lee says she learned about getting internet for the first time when she moved from Calgary a few years ago to pursue a career and continue her studies in Toronto.

“Internet was one of the first things I looked at before I moved, because I know that a lot of things I do require internet.”

Lee, who got an electrical engineering degree from the University of Calgary before getting a certificate in marketing recently from the University of Toronto, says she was surprised by the number of internet providers in Toronto.

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But she also found lots of people shared their experiences on online forums, particularly Reddit.

“So I was able to find an internet plan that worked for me, even before moving to Toronto,” Lee says.

“I was pretty satisfied,” she adds. “My family will pay a lot more in Calgary than I do in Ontario...because there is more competition.”

Despite her positive experience with internet service provider TekSavvy, Lee says she later switched to another company after discovering it could offer even faster service and lower prices to certain parts of Toronto, including hers.

Consumers can find links to several private-sector sites that track internet and mobile services by searching “CRTC compare services” for a page maintained by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw and its Freedom Mobile see the back-to-school period as prime time to attract new customers.

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Recent promotions have included a $25 per month credit for an internet service from Bell for students who show proof of enrolment to a post-secondary institution for the upcoming 2018 session — if they commit to 12 months. A Telus internet offer for students, by contrast, said it had no term contract and the first month free for new customers.

In terms of mobile, a Rogers offer reduced the cost of a new second line on a family sharing plan by $10, to $50 per month. Meanwhile, Freedom urges customers to avoid sharing plans and go for individual plans with their own data. In many cases, mobile carriers have been offering additional data on top of their regular plans to attract customers.

The challenge is that these deals may be short-lived and often contain conditions or exceptions that are easy to overlook or misunderstand.

For example, an “unlimited” data plan may slow down the service by throttling — the intentional slowing or speeding of an internet service by an internet service provider — if usage is high or the network is busy. A discount might also last less than a full school year, and added service — video packages for example — may be unnecessary or already available through a parental plan.

Halabi — who primarily looks for bargains for commercial clients but who also does work for individuals in return for some of the realized savings — adds that it’s also important to record the call or keep accurate notes about the negotiation and to check that the agreements are reflected in the bills that come in later.

If the service or bills don’t meet expectations, it’s important to call the provider to resolve the problem.

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Halabi says students should be prepared to escalate the call past the provider’s initial gatekeeper — to their retention department or higher if necessary — until the problem is resolved to their satisfaction.

The telecom industry also has a dispute resolution body, the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services, that helps consumers who are unable to come to terms with an individual provider.

Sonny Banerjee, a librarian who helps to run a financial literacy program for Ryerson University students in Toronto, notes that students should review bills regularly to spot overcharges and possible mistakes.

He recommends setting reminders on a mobile calendar or app because “it’s important to be clear with roommates about who pays what and set expectations about paying bills on time.”

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