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The downside of upselling: Canadian seniors put at a disadvantage by telecoms

A message from ACT, the Ageing + Communication + Technologies (ACT) research project, based at Concordia University.

As media reports about the aggressive sales tactics of internet, phone and television service providers accumulate, Canadians are becoming increasingly aware of how common it is to receive bad service from telecommunication companies. We are all struck by how convoluted, expensive, and seemingly impossible it is to navigate the telecommunications industry. For many seniors, this industry is much more than a hassle, it is predatory.

Since 2011, our Concordia University research team Ageing + Communication + Technologies (ACT Project) has examined how older adults use media. We work with seniors and we partner with not-for-profit groups to provide digital literacy workshops for seniors. Through our conversations with older adults, we continue to learn disturbing stories about the ways in which telecommunications companies treat their older customers. Ironically, some of these older customers have been with their providers for forty or more years!

The seniors we work with have shared stories about the predatory sales practices and demeaning customer service standards of Canadian telecommunications companies. We have learned some seniors are sold Internet packages they don’t need for devices they don’t have. Some are sold devices that they’ll never use, under the guise that these new devices will somehow save them a few dollars or that the devices they own already are outdated.

The challenges and expenses faced by older adults are grossly magnified if those older adults are less affluent and less digitally literate. Older adults who have not developed the technological language required to identify the services they need, or to negotiate the prices they can afford, should not be overcharged, sold services they don’t need, or subject to other predatory practices so commonly used by Canadian service providers.

Seniors who have the greatest need for a bargain may be the least likely to get one. Our previous research on seniors’ and cell phones revealed that affluent older adults were more likely to know how to negotiate deals. Many came from business backgrounds and were aware of their rights as consumers. This puts them at a clear advantage when it comes to negotiating packages or dealing with problems on their bill. It also puts those without this type of background at a clear disadvantage.

After hearing many of these disturbing stories, we started reaching out to the general public to better understand Canadian seniors’ experiences with telecommunications companies. We have  received multiple phone calls from seniors, and have heard from families and friends who try to advocate for their loved ones. We’ve learned that seniors are often lured into expensive contracts that they are told they cannot get out of, even if their living circumstances change drastically due to situations beyond their control. In some cases, the onset of a serious health condition or the death of a spouse is not enough for their telecommunications company to modify their contract. Some people have told us they’ve been fighting to modify or cancel a contract for months, if not years. And these are not isolated incidents: we’ve heard similar stories from people in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia

The rapid transition into the digital era means that all of us are facing the challenges and expenses that come with the digital telecommunications industry. Canadians of all ages should be deeply disturbed that some of our oldest citizens are being taken advantage of, usually due to circumstances beyond their control.

Next Steps:

This issue requires scrutiny on behalf of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the media and the public, and immediate action from service providers.

If you have a story to share about your dealings with telecommunications service providers, please call 1-800-835-1979. This phone line has been set up by ACT in collaboration with the Public Interest and Advocacy Centre.

About the Authors:

Kim Sawchuk is director, Constance Lafontaine is associate director and Kendra Besanger is knowledge mobilization officer at the Ageing + Communication + Technologies (ACT) research project, based at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec.

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