Bell billing practices under the microscope by Whitehorse customers

Public anger at Bell Mobility keeps growing. A slew of billing gaffes and lacklustre public relations is fueling discord amongst the cellphone…

Public anger at Bell Mobility keeps growing.

A slew of billing gaffes and lacklustre public relations is fueling discord amongst the cellphone giant’s customers.

This month, Bell goofed again, issuing bills that charged long-distance fees for calls to Beaver Creek that were actually local calls within Whitehorse.

As a result, many customers approached the paper confused, frustrated and furious with the telco.

Rochelle Thompson is one of them.

She’s been battling Bell for two months.

Her problems began in October, when she was hit with a $76 bill for downloading a screensaver following the poorly launched 1X upgrade to the company’s Whitehorse network.

That system upgrade allowed Bell customers to begin downloading ringtones, screensavers and music to their phones.

But the company failed to tell customers that, without signing a monthly plan, they’d be charged as much as $51.20 per megabyte.

Customers could access the 1X service before it was officially launched. And the usurious charges still applied.

Thompson, a 32-year-old Yukon College business student, only convinced Bell to waive the unexpected download fees after an hour on the phone, and after adding a $7 charge to her monthly phone bill, she said.

This month, she opened her bill to find $7.50 in charges for long-distance calls to and from Beaver Creek.

That made her upset enough to approach The News.

She was never in Beaver Creek, and she never called anybody there, she said.

“Let me tell you, they’re doing a really bad job,” she said, comparing Bell with business models she is learning about in college.

And the Beaver Creek phantom call fiasco is “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” for Nicola Letoria.

Letoria sent a scathing e-mail about Bell to The News, then agreed to an interview.

Because the company passes on the fees to customers and only reverses them when a fuss is made, it’s time for Bell customers to start fighting back, she said.

“The little guy has to start standing up to these monster corporations that can threaten you with whatever they want,” said Letoria.

But it appears the recent Beaver Creek problems — and customer anger about those and other billing errors — are having an effect on Bell.

Reacting quickly to the public’s concerns about the phantom calls, first reported on Wednesday, Bell is promising a fix.

The most recent billing errors for calls made to and from Beaver Creek will “automatically be rectified on people’s bills,” said Chris McNutt, a spokesperson for NMI Mobility, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell.

“There was just a glitch in the billing system,” said McNutt. “As far as our internal system goes, it recognized one of the Whitehorse towers and decided to call it Beaver Creek, and then it decided to attribute all calls as calls to Beaver Creek.”

However, he didn’t know what the telco would do for the customers it forced to sign monthly calling plans before the Beaver Creek long-distance charges were waived.

“This was just a momentary glitch in the billing system,” said McNutt of the Beaver Creek fiasco.

“But besides that, things have been working well. This is a one-time thing. There is no major recognized problems with the billing system at the moment that requires any additional work.”

But the Beaver Creek imbroglio is only one in a long string of billing errors Letoria has been dealt by Bell.

About a year ago, Letoria and her husband, who often works outside the territory, bought two cellphones and signed up for Bell’s “small-business Canada” plan.

The deal costs $90 a month, and promises unlimited calling privileges at any time between the two cellphones.

Letoria thought the cell plan would allow her to keep in touch with her husband for less money than her regular landline was costing.

But every month, she is forced to call Bell because the calls between the phones are being billed, she said.

“Every single month, I’ve been getting humungous bills where they’ve been charging for the calls between our two cellphones,” said Letoria.

Her first Bell bill was supposed to be about $90. It was $561, she said.

“Every month, I have to call them back and I’m put on hold a half-a-dozen times,” she said.

“Last month, I was actually on the phone with them for an hour and 45 minutes, 70 per cent of the time on hold.

“I keep getting the spiel, ‘This is an ongoing problem in the Whitehorse area, we’re fixing it,’ and I’ve been getting that same line for 12 months.”

She refuses to pay the wrong fees, she said.

“I’ve told them that if they don’t get the problem straightened out, I will be going to another phone company.

“As far as I’m concerned, every month, they’ve been breaching the contract, not me,” she said. “If they don’t clean up the problem, I will cancel my account with them.

“And they can try to charge me, because I have a three-year contract with them, but I’ll take them to court over it.

“I have saved every single bill. I can walk into a court and say, ‘Look, they have not been providing me with the service they promised under the contract.’”

In a single year, Bell has overcharged “literally thousands of dollars,” she said.

She’s got a healthy skepticism of her monthly bill, she said.

But others aren’t, and that worries her.

“They should be going through every single line of their phone bill,” said Letoria.

Another person who scrupulously monitors their cellphone bills also contacted The News.

They asked to remain anonymous.

The man discovered some interesting mathematical facts about his bill, he said.

The GST billing is always “off by a few cents, and it is invariably an additional few cents,” he said, in an e-mail.

Intrigued, he began examining his bill.

It routinely rounds up amounts less than a penny, he wrote.

And Bell charges GST on every call, not on the total bill.

“This seems innocuous, but it’s not,” he wrote.

Bell rounds up its bills in increments of 0.25 cents, he explained.

That, along with the per-call charging of GST means Bell collects an average of 0.125 cents extra per call, he said.

And that only applied when the GST was seven per cent.

“With the new GST rate of six per cent, their recovery has doubled to an average of 0.25 cents extra per call,” he wrote.

“On my bill this only adds up to a few cents, at the most.”

But Bell has somewhere in the range of six million wireless customers, he noted.

“If I am an average user, that would suggest that Bell is taking in something in the range of $100,000 to $200,000 per month in additional GST charges,” he said.

“Does Bell pay all of the GST it collects to the federal government, or do they calculate it on the basis of a total? Who keeps the extra money, Bell or the government?”

“I can’t comment on the accounting,” said McNutt when told of the man’s claims.

Officials with Bell Canada did not return phone calls before press time.

But McNutt did concede more attention needs to be given to communicating with Bell customers in Whitehorse.

“I think there is additional work required … making customers aware of charges, and we have some plans in place to do that,” he said.