Courts ordered nearly $1 million in restitution in 2016-17 as a result of provincial investigations into breaches of consumer protection and tenancy laws.
In addition, Service Alberta’s investigations led to a first-ever conviction for charging an illegal interest rate on a payday loan, and a nine-month jail sentence for a home renovator for misleading customers and operating without a licence.
Service Alberta’s consumer investigations unit concluded 618 cases during the last fiscal year. As a result, the courts ordered:
- $957,010 in restitution to be paid back to consumers
- $272,445 in fines to individuals and businesses for contraventions such as misleading consumers, operating without licences or failing to refund consumers
“Everyone deserves to be protected when they are making a purchase or signing a contract. But when those rights are violated, we take action to protect consumers from scams, bad deals and pushy sales pitches. Our investigations create consumer confidence and that’s good for business as Alberta’s economy continues to look up. If you have an incident to report, I urge you to call our consumer protection line so we can look into it.”
~Stephanie McLean, Minister of Service Alberta
Since the ban on door-to-door sales of energy products and services came into effect on Jan. 1, the consumer investigations team has closed 129 investigations, up from 44 in 2016.
One of those cases included Tam Dang’s family, whose consumer rights were violated by a door-to-door furnace and HVAC seller that sold them a home Air Filtration System add-on to their heating system. Soon after installation, the equipment needed repairs and when the family decided to cancel the contract, the company refused to honour the cancellation rights and put a lien on their home for the cost of the contract.
After assistance from Service Alberta, the family got their money back, the contract was cancelled and the lien was removed in July 2017. The company was fined $3,000 and had its licence cancelled by Service Alberta after investigations revealed the company’s sales practices, contract terms and training activities represented serious contraventions of the Fair Trading Act.
“Without the help of the Consumer Investigations Unit, we would be making payments for 10 years on equipment we don’t even use. Make sure you come forward with concerns and file a consumer complaint – this process can protect your rights against companies that target vulnerable people, especially seniors.”
~Tam Dang, Alberta consumer
The 37-member investigation team reviews consumer complaints and investigates potential violations of consumer protection and tenancy laws. The team also proactively educates businesses about Alberta’s laws and licensing requirements, and consumers on their rights.
In addition to court-ordered penalties, Service Alberta undertook a number of administrative actions, including issuing more than $30,000 in fines and ordering multiple businesses to comply with laws and regulations. The details of these actions are posted at ServiceAlberta.ca.
Highlights of 2016-17 enforcement activities include:
- A first-ever charge and conviction under the Fair Trading Act for payday lending. A payday lender was fined $1,150 by the provincial court for charging an illegal interest rate.
- A first-ever charge and conviction under the Emergency Management Act for increasing a tenant’s rent during the rent freeze in Fort McMurray during the wildfires. The landlord was fined $2,000 with a $300 victim surcharge or 19-day jail sentence under the Emergency Management Act.
- A home renovation contractor received a nine-month prison sentence (minus 47 days for pre-trial custody) and was ordered to pay $76,875 in restitution to former customers for repeatedly trying to scam consumers by not completing the work that was agreed to, among other contraventions of the Fair Trading Act.
- A home renovation company was fined $61,000, in addition to a six-month jail sentence and a $43,000 fine for one partner and an $18,000 fine for another partner in the company, for operating without a proper business licence, misleading consumers, failing to refund consumers and other contraventions of the Fair Trading Act. The company and partners were also ordered to pay $273,000 in restitution to former customers.
- An international employment agency was charged under the Employment Agency Business Licensing Regulation and ordered by the provincial court to return $6,300 to a Temporary Foreign Worker.
- A contractor pleaded guilty to 22 charges under the Fair Trading Act to resolve the total of 180 charges laid in 2015 against him and his two companies. The case is awaiting a court decision.
- Several landlords in Fort McMurray were charged for breaches of the Residential Tenancies Act. Examples of these charges include illegal rent increases, locking tenants out of their premises and illegal evictions of tenants.
- One of the landlords was fined $7,000 by the provincial court – the largest ever fine against a landlord – for inappropriate handling of tenants’ security deposits.
- Two door-to-door furnace and HVAC sellers were banned from operating in Alberta. One was fined $3,000 (as outlined above), and the other was fined $8,000 and had its licence suspended indefinitely by Service Alberta as a result of investigations, which revealed misleading contracts, failures to refund money and honour extended cancellation rights, as well as circumventing the ban on door-to-door sales of furnaces.
- Multiple other door-to-door sellers were fined for not having an appropriate business licence, misleading consumers and failing to disclose required contract information.
The courts ordered restitution of $957,010 to 77 complainants in cases involving issues such as:
- failing to refund deposits (9)
- unfair practices (aggressive sales tactics, unfair contract terms, dishonest conduct, misleading or lying, overcharging) (12)
- no pre-paid contractor licence (34)
- contract issues from direct sales (10)
- Residential Tenancy Act breaches (12)
Resolutions were reached in the following areas:
- Taking deposits and not completing the work: $763,100
- Payday loans: $2,650
- Loan brokers: $43,000
- Debt repayment and collections: $33,000
- Residential tenancies: $32,000
- Door-to-door sales: $13,000
Over the last five fiscal years:
|April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017||$272,445||$957,010|
|April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016||$996,715||$1,106,717|
|April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015||$1,072,981||$991,523|
|April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014||$146,000||$560,000|
|April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013||$168,392||$714,000|
Tips to protect yourself
- Check that the business has a licence at ServiceAlberta.ca/find-if-
- Shop around and get written estimates from multiple businesses before making a decision.
- Research the companies: check online reviews and references for the businesses.
- Make sure you understand the total price and terms of the contract you are signing.
- Get it in writing; never accept verbal agreements – always insist on a written contract.
- Don’t sign a contract if you don’t understand it.
- Be cautious of any offers of prizes or contests.
- Call Service Alberta’s consumer protection line toll-free at 1-877-427-4088 to report an incident.
- Twelve statutes and 44 regulations make up Alberta’s consumer protection laws.
- The Fair Trading Act is the primary legislation that ensures transactions between businesses and consumers are conducted fairly.
- From July to September 2017, Service Alberta consulted with Albertans to help inform changes to consumer protection laws. The consultation process included:
- an online survey that generated 2,954 responses
- open houses in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat, and Fort McMurray, attended by 148 Albertans
- a total of 40 meetings with business and consumer groups
- roundtables with the Edmonton and Calgary Chambers of Commerce, attended by 26 businesses
- Service Alberta investigates potential violations of consumer protection laws, reviews complaints about transactions between businesses and consumers and takes enforcement action where legislative breaches have occurred.