Sometimes, the squeaky wheel just continues to squeak.
In an old idiom, squeaky wheels got grease. In other words, those that complained loudest received more favourable treatment. But the huge backlog in several regulatory complaints services suggests Canada’s complaints-based systems are faltering in their ability to arbitrate disagreements, collect intelligence and respond to fraud.
In banking, travel, fraud-prevention, and other sectors, squeaks just echo into empty or near-empty complaints departments.
Consumers suspicious about emails or other potential frauds are directed to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. It was established to collect and disseminate information about fraud and identity theft, and report on those scams to raise public awareness. Its current capacity to accept consumer complaints about fraud is reduced because its call centre is closed and its offices are operating at a reduced capacity due to COVID-19. It currently advises consumers to report any fraud-related incidents to their local police.
Maybe you have a complaint about a flight cancellation. The Canadian Transportation Agency had a backlog of nearly 14,000 air passenger complaints dating back up to two years, according to a late May CBC report. Nearly half of the 26,000 complaints submitted from July 2018 to April 2020 were unresolved. CTA complaints are meant to be addressed in between 30 and 120 days.
A 2019 Consumers Council of Canada research report identified this trend. It showed how reduced inspections in areas such as food, aircraft and commercial vehicle safety, consumer packaging, textile labelling and precious metals marking were adding risks to consumers. Inspections were replaced by “risk-based” models or responsive enforcement programs where actions are determined by complaint data and trend analysis. The report noted that this movement runs contrary to OECD guidelines that “complaints should never be taken as the primary driver for targeting inspections,”
At Canada’s Competition Bureau, one person handled all the initial complaints, which contributed to a backlog identified in a 2019 audit. The report cited some examples of complaints about product labelling, meant to be handled in days, taking up to 45 days before they were even assigned to an officer for investigation. An October 2019 response from the Bureau said the capacity issue was being addressed through restructuring and the training of backups, but one published report said a second person was not scheduled to be hired at the end of 2019.
Like the Anti-Fraud Centre, the Competition Bureau’s Information Centre, Whistle-blowing Initiative, Federal Contracting Fraud Tip Line and Media Relations are all currently unavailable by telephone, and responding to email or online queries only.
Long-standing complaints about how banks handled consumer complaints led to formal reviews announced in 2018, conducted by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada in 2019, with results published earlier this year. Those results indicated that banks do a decent job of managing simple customer complaints. However, banks struggle with more sophisticated complaints, make it difficult for consumers to escalate complaints, lack procedures, do not train staff or monitor processes, and often fail to inform consumers of the availability of external adjudication.
A parallel report about the external adjudication was much more critical, questioning the provision that allows each bank to choose which of two providers to use. One of the two providers was severely criticized in the review, and any financial settlement recommendations from these services are not binding on the banks.
A CRTC response cited in a July 9 Globe and Mail article indicated that the quantity of complaints is a consideration in its responsiveness. In a story about an unanswered consumer complaint about how confessions forced by Chinese police are being aired by Chinese stations distributed to Canadian consumers, the CRTC indicated it had “only received one complaint related to the issue” and would not comment until it had finished with the complaint.
Consumers Council of Canada has made submission to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance’s consultation towards the 2021 budget about consumer complaints handling, among other matters. That submission calls for an expanded mandate for the federal government’s proposed Canadian Consumer Advocate and greater recognition of and support for consumer representation in creating law, regulations and standards.