Telus agrees to pay $7.34 million in customer rebates to resolve false and misleading advertising allegations

Jeff Brown and Margaret Kim - 

On December 30, 2015, the Competition Bureau announced that it had reached a consent agreement with Telus Communications Inc., one of Canada’s “Big Three” wireless carriers, over allegations of false or misleading advertisements for premium text messaging and rich content services, such as trivia, daily horoscopes, and ring tones. 

As part of the consent agreement, Telus will issue rebates in an aggregate amount up to $7.34 million to certain current and former wireless customers, who the Bureau alleged were unknowingly charged extra for the text message services. The Bureau noted that the amount for consumer rebates made available under the consent agreement is the most obtained by it under any consent agreement to date.  In March 2015,  Rogers Communications Inc. settled with the Bureau, agreeing to pay $5.42 million in refunds to customers for the same fees as part of the same investigation. Similar proceedings against Bell Canada and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association are ongoing.

 Background

Section 74.01(1)(a) of the Competition Act (the Act) addresses materially false or misleading representations to the public.  Under this provision, engaging in such activity for the purpose of promoting, directly or indirectly, the supply or use of a product or for the purpose of promoting, directly or indirectly, any business interest, is a civilly reviewable matter.  

In September 2012, following a five-month investigation, the Bureau commenced legal proceedings against Rogers, Telus, Bell and the CWTA in the Ontario Superior Court.  The Bureau alleged that that the carriers and the CWTA made, or permitted to be made, false or misleading representations to customers in advertisements for premium text messages appearing in pop-up ads, apps and social media. The Bureau also alleged that the carriers permitted charges to be made by two third-party companies, Jesta and MMS, for texting services, such as trivia questions and ringtones, that wireless customers did not intend to purchase and for which they had not agreed to pay.  

In her statement, then-Commissioner Melanie Aiken stated that the Bureau’s investigation had revealed that “consumers were under the false impression that certain texts and apps were free”, and that “unfortunately, in far too many cases, consumers only became aware of unexpected and unauthorized charges on their mobile phone bills.” 

In the Bureau’s investigation, a tool known as a “common short code” was at the heart of the issue.  Text messages and digital content are delivered through this common short code, which is a number assigned by the CWTA’s Short Code Council. The CWTA then leases out the assigned number to a third party for the sale and delivery of digital content.   While such text messages and digital content can be made available for free to a wireless customer or billed at standard text messaging rates, these codes can also be used to charge higher rates to customers.  According to the Bureau, its investigation revealed that premium-rate digital content could cost up to $10 per transaction, and up to $40 for a monthly subscription. The digital content at issue was offered through advertisements in popular free apps on wireless devices, and also online. According to the Bureau, consumers were led to believe that such products were free but then later incurred charges. The Bureau also alleged that “the disclosure to customers had been wholly inadequate,” and the carriers “profited from these charges, at their customers’ expense”.

The Bureau’s sought remedies including full customer refunds and administrative monetary penalties of $10 million from each of Rogers, Telus and Bell, and $1 million from the CWTA. 

Overview of the Settlement

The rebates will apply to Telus, Telus Mobility and Koodo customers who incurred charges for certain premium text messaging services between January 1, 2011 and August 16, 2013.  The current affected customers will automatically receive a rebate as credits, while former affected customers will be notified with details on how to obtain their rebates by email or a letter with 120 days to make a claim.

In addition to the rebates, the consent agreement stipulates that Telus will publish a notice to all affected customers and establish a consumer awareness campaign to educate consumers on how to avoid unwanted wireless charges.  Telus will also create a corporate compliance program with a specific focus on its “billing on behalf of” practices and the Competition Act generally. The consent agreement requires that the compliance program be framed in a manner consistent with the Bureau’s “Corporate Compliance Programs Bulletin,” which was updated in June 2015.

Telus will also donate a total of $250,000 to the Ryerson University Privacy and Big Data Institute;  Éducaloi, an NGO dedicated to helping the public understand their rights and responsibilities under the law; and the Centre de recherche en droit public de l'Université de Montréal. The donations are earmarked for research on issues such as:

  • Citizen’s rights and consumer education regarding how wireless service providers use personal information and data collected from customers;
     
  • How wireless carriers could make more transparent to Canadian consumers what personal information the carriers are collecting and how that personal information will be used; and
     
  • The role that the law currently plays and could play in ensuring that consumers receive accurate information

Going forward: Bureau consumer protection efforts  likely to continue to be an enforcement priority

Going forward, it can be expected that the Bureau will continue to make enforcement of the Act’s false and misleading representation provisions an  enforcement priority.  The Bureau recently updated its Deceptive Marketing Practices Digest Bulletin, which focuses on the importance of truthful and accurate marketing practices in the digital economy.  The Bulletin also reflects Canada’s recently enacted Anti-Spam Legislation, which applies to the sending of electronic messages, as well as recent growth of online marketing through adoption of digital technology, in particular, mobile devices such as smartphones.

To this end, Matthew Boswell, Senior Deputy Commissioner of Competition, stated, “consumers expect and deserve truth in advertising. Allowing a third party to take advantage of consumers through misleading advertising is a violation of the Competition Act,” and indicated that the Bureau would continue enforcing misleading advertising “to ensure that consumers benefit from accurate information in the digital economy.”

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