Consumer desire to reduce waste and improvise recycling clashes with safety requirements on refilling smaller propane canisters.
Small propane canisters commonly used to fuel camping stoves and lanterns - known as one-pounders – are generally not refillable. Yet it is easy to find internet retailers who can provide adapters that claim to safely allow for the transfer of propane from larger barbecue containers to the empty camping containers. It’s easy to see the appeal for campers looking to reduce the waste generated by multiple empty metal containers at the end of a camping trip. The adapters can be purchased for $20 or less. There are numerous instructional videos, as well as web sites and message boards that extol how easy and smart it is.
But it’s not legal in Ontario, for a number of safety reasons. Ontario’s Technical Standards and Safety Authority issued numerous safety alert bulletins noting that the adaptors designed to complete transfers into smaller, non-refillable cylinders are illegal under the Propane Storage and Handling Code. This is because of the public safety risks posed by fires, explosions and burn hazards. As a result the adaptors cannot be sold in stores.
Propane cylinders must be filled by weight or volume at a TSSA-licensed facility, and Specification 39 canisters (the one-pound camping propane bottles) cannot be refilled at all. More details on the TSSA bulletin are available here.
Ontario campsites have large containers to collect the empty canisters, which are later vented, crushed and recycled.
The TSSA is responsible for promoting and enforcing public safety in Ontario. The Technical Standards and Safety Act regulations apply to three key sectors:
1. Boilers and pressure vessels and operating engineers
2. Elevating devices, amusement devices and ski lifts
A group of Canadian consumers recently discovered that the value of gift cards can disappear very quickly.
Most provinces have rules to protect consumers who purchase gift cards, but if the retailer goes out of business, gift card holders are likely to be treated as unsecured creditors with few options.
This story from Cabin Radio describes how a number of Yellowknife, NWT consumers purchased cards for $100 or more at a customer appreciation event shortly before a retailer was set to go out of business. Customers were particularly disadvantaged because the Merle Norman brand chose not to backstop its franchisee’s gift cards, and because the Northwest Territories is one of the few Canadian jurisdictions without gift card legislation.
Consumers Council of Canada Executive Director Ken Whitehurst is quoted in the story. He noted that civil claims might be the only option for any recovery. He also noted that consumers with no other recourse could consider complaining to the Competition Bureau of Canada or to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
The Federal Government’s Financial Consumer Agency of Canada provides a link to the different provincial rules on gift cards, but as Ontario’s Consumer Protection site notes “If you have a gift card for a business that has closed, your options may be limited.”
Here are a number of guidelines for consumers to protect their gift card or gift certificates’ value:
1. Don’t rely on brand image when buying a gift card. Know who is issuing and standing behind it.
2. Read the terms and conditions to understand how the merchant may attempt to limit its liability to you.
3. Understand your rights and the laws in the province or jurisdiction you live in.
4. Don’t hesitate to report any problem collecting on a gift card to your provincial or territorial consumer protection department. Some say they can have non-binding influence with the merchant or franchisor.
5. Share the experience with the Consumers Council of Canada through https://www.consumerscouncil.com, so we can work on improving protections for consumers in the future.
6. If the value of a gift card is large, enter a claim for restitution in writing with the merchant and franchisor. In the event a bankruptcy ensues, unsecured creditors could receive partial compensation.
7. Some businesses will negotiate an exchange of products still in inventory in order to settle, if they haven’t already filed for bankruptcy. Consumers can propose creative solutions to get all or part of their value back.
8. Be suspicious of gift cards sold just days before a business closing and alert authorities. Fraudulent misrepresentation to raise cash by a business that expects to soon fail is not acceptable. A consumer who feels unsure about whether they have been defrauded, can discuss their experience with Canada's Anti-Fraud Centre.
9. Although consumer protection law may provide your rights, it may be up to you to enforce those rights through a court to collect against them.
10. If enough consumers are harmed and the right of claim is relatively clear, lawyers experienced in class action may be interested in making a case for you and other consumers as a class, without cost to the affected consumers. The Canadian Bar Association has an online “find a lawyer” service to help identify lawyers experienced in class action.
“I rob banks because that’s where the money is”, a quote once attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton, is helpful in understanding the risks of consumer loss in electronic fund transfers.
Consumers are growing more comfortable with electronic fund transfers. Because “that’s where the money is”, criminal elements have also capitalized on weaknesses in security of those transfers.
CBC News’ Go Public facility has recently focused on numerous tales of consumers defrauded using e-transfers. In one, a Manitoba consumer lost the $3,000 he sent to a contractor, when the contractor’s e-mail account was hacked and the hackers were able to correctly answer the security question (“What is your wife’s name?”) with a simple glance at Facebook. The financial institution said the consumer was to blame.
In another, a Toronto contractor had his e-mail hacked, and e-transfer payments to him were redirected into a different account. Each story contains numerous other examples of consumers being defrauded and financial institutions unable or unwilling to intervene.
The victims argue that the banks promote that transactions are safe and secure, while the smaller print in online agreements undercut that security.
The banks note that password-based security can be disarmed if the body of the email contains the password, or if the password is sent in a separate e-mail to the same hacked e-mail address.
TD-Bank’s online resources note that the e-transfer sender has some key responsibilities, including “an effective security question and answer that isn’t easily guessable, and is known only to the sender and the recipient…..this means avoiding easily obtained or guessable information like names, birth dates, places of employment, etc..” The site notes the Federal Get Cyber Safe campaign offers tips on how to protect money online. The bank also recommends reporting scams to local police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
Interac notes that its e-Transfer transactions cannot be reversed once a recipient has deposited the funds, and recommends only using the service with people you know and trust “the same way you would with cash.” It also describes some of the common scams that deceive consumers into providing personal information or cash, such as false classified ads, unsolicited job offers, threatening messages from the CRA, fake transfers and “phishing” scams.
The CBC report also quotes security and risk management experts about the shortcomings to Canadian systems. Measures such as “two-factor authentication” (which only allows a user to log on to an account once they receive a code on a separate device or an e-mail at a different address) could reduce fraud. Others noted payments could not be intercepted if they were bank-to-bank and avoided e-mail altogether.
You have finally decided on a refrigerator. Compared prices, sizes, energy efficiency and other features. It seems like all the decisions have been made, until you get to the checkout, and you have to make one more decision – whether to purchase additional product protection.
These additional programs – sometimes called extended warranty, or service plus or protection programs – aim to reduce the buyer’s worry that the products may fail after the manufacturer’s warranty expires but before the buyer has enjoyed all the benefits expected from that new refrigerator, computer or other major household item.
Consumers may view that all protection plans are essentially the same. But there are significant differences between coverages offered. The important points of differentiation are described in the Consumers Council of Canada’s 2018 report Consumers and Product Insurance Purchase Decisions.
The report compared the coverages offered by numerous leading Canadian retailers in 2017-18. Comparisons across retailers showed there were many similarities. Items almost universally found in service contracts included:
• language that the contract was the entire agreement
• information about how to file a claim or arrange service
• rules about transferability and cancellation
• limits on liability to the purchase price of the product
• language that allows them to fulfill the contract by issuing a cheque or gift card for the value of the original purchase
• an articulation of what is covered, and not covered. “Not covered” commonly includes items that have had unauthorized service, accessories, peripherals, components with limited life (batteries and bulbs), cosmetic or superficial damage that does not affect a product’s operation, damage caused by natural or man-made disasters, loss or theft, wear and tear caused by normal aging, and abuse, misuse or deliberate damage.
While those were the areas almost always included, there were a number of areas where programs studied showed significant variance:
• Protection on replacement units. Most contracts clearly state that the contract terminates when a replacement item is issued to the buyer, but a few specifically extend the protection to also cover replacement items issued.
• Technical assistance to help with installation or troubleshooting is sometimes provided, sometimes not.
• The location of service – and whether the buyer has to pay for delivery to a specific service depot – also varies between plans. Some plans provide for in-home service.
• Some plans begin coverage only after the expiration of the manufacturers warranty, while others begin with the date of purchase.
• Some contracts provide for temporary replacements (“loaners”) while damaged items are repaired
• Language around coverage of damage is particularly varied, and important. Except for computers and smartphones, most contracts specifically exclude coverage for accidental damage. However, the popularity of handheld items that can be easily dropped has led to some offerings of protection for accidental damage from handling. This is commonly optional coverage – consumers can choose to pay extra for it. Furniture coverage may also include optional coverages for certain accidental spillage. Intent is also crucial in determining whether a claim is covered. Coverage on a dropped telephone is different from coverage of a telephone hurled in anger, and coverage of spilled drink on a sofa may be different from coverage of a toddler’s Sharpie drawings on a sofa (which may not be considered “accidental” by the service provider.)
• Optional damage coverage is one example of choice. Some providers offer different levels of service so that consumers can choose to pay higher amounts to have service performed in their home, levels of technical support above product defect or to choose different durations of the coverage.
• Another differential element of some programs are terms that allowed unused premium payments to be used as a discount on future purchases.
• Coverages can differ by province, though few consumers can choose the province in which an item is purchased.
Though the contract print is often exceptionally small, consumers should read it before making a purchase decision. The research found that misunderstandings about what was covered (1st) and misleading statements by sales representatives (3rd) were among the most commonly cited sources of consumer unhappiness.
Social media makes it easy for consumers to share their experiences on goods and services – positive and negative – with the whole world. To a smaller merchant, a single negative review could have a large impact on their business.
Those two forces are driving some smaller businesses to only offer reimbursements if the consumers promise not to post scathing online feedback. A recent CBC story detailed how a kitchen renovation merchant refused to reimburse an Ottawa couple for money owed unless the couple signed a legal contract that would prevent them from publishing negative online reviews.
Ironically, the couple had selected the merchant based on positive online reviews. But the length of the repairs and other complications led the firm to offer the couple $1,833 in reimbursement – but only if the couple agreed to sign a “non-disparagement” clause.
In a statement to the CBC, the merchant noted that “it only takes one false review to go viral to scare clients away and do permanent damage to a small business” and that “just like an individual’s reputation is important, the reputation of a small business is equally important and warrants protection.”
The story also noted that the merchant had an 86 per cent positive rating from HomeStars, the popular contractor review site. HomeStars CEO Nancy Peterson noted there should be no strings attached when it comes to getting a refund from a contractor. She also said that businesses do sometimes persuade clients to remove reviews from her site, but that ratings are lowered if many clients remove their review.
The entire story is an example of the limited reliability of online consumer reviews, the subject of a 2016 Consumers Council of Canada research report. Strengthening the Marketplace Through a Consumer Protection Framework for Consumer Online Reviews concluded that consumers rely on “gut feel” when judging the trustworthiness of individual consumer reviews. The report also noted that many online review sites contain numerous false reviews, created for many reasons: businesses seeking advantages, friends helping friends, employees supporting employers and consumers getting even.
The report noted that online consumer reviews are instructive, but not representative sources of information, as they tend to reflect polar experiences. “Consumers tend to write about extreme experiences (very good or very bad), but not unexceptional experiences.” The report concluded by counselling consumers to use reviews cautiously. “They can be a valuable resource, but consumers need well-developed critical skills to use them well. Relying on ‘gut feel’ to judge the authenticity of a consumer review doesn’t work.”
A followup CBC item indicated that the merchant eventually completed the reimbursement.