For a long time, John Telepcak struggled with a secret. He was facing a “mountain of bills” he couldn’t afford to pay for products and services he didn’t understand, didn’t need or already had.
The Toronto man is one of many Canadians locked into long and pricey contracts after coming face to face with high pressure and misleading sales tactics by door-to-door salespeople.
Only two provinces have banned unsolicited door-to-door sales of most heating, air and water services. Despite the bans, critics say gaps in the rules leave consumers open to abuse.
Door-to-door salespeople convinced 69-year-old Telepcak, who has a mental disability, to sign long-term contracts for everything from water heaters to carbon offsets. In some cases, Telepcak bought the same product twice from different companies.
Other contracts show he was locked into leasing agreements that had him paying four, five or six times the retail value of a product. For example, a water softener that retails for around $1,000 cost Telepcak more than $3,600 for the first year alone.
“Why I went ahead with this and agreed? Uh I don’t know, I don’t know,” Telepcak said from his Toronto home. “They wouldn’t stop talking. Non-stop [talking] just to confuse the issue until, I guess, till I agreed.”
Go Public gets contracts cancelled
Telepcak broke down at work in March and told his boss Brian Hoecht that he was crumbling under the weight of the more than $700 a month he was obligated to pay under the contracts.
He didn’t know it yet, but he also had $32,338 in liens against his house from the heating and cooling contracts that were secured against the home.
Hoecht says his employee showed him so many bills it was hard to figure out how Telepcak ended up in the situation and exactly what he was paying for.
They say you don’t have to look for trouble, it comes to you. Well it’s found me, it’s found my exact home.– John Telepcak
“When I first heard about it, John was sitting in the cafeteria in the [car] dealership where we both work, holding his head in his hands,” Hoecht said.
“The cafeteria lady, who John is close with, said ‘John needs to talk to you about something.'”
Telepcak had signed so many contracts he’d lost track. They included heating and cooling maintenance plans, a plumbing and drain protection plan, water softener, drinking water system, two HEPA filters and a $70 a month charge for something identified in the billing as “home improvements.” Some of the contracts locked Telepcak in for 10 to 15 years.
“I have a lot of anxiety over this,” he said. “They say you don’t have to look for trouble, it comes to you. Well it’s found me, it’s found my exact home.”
Hoecht tried to help his employee by calling and sending registered letters to the businesses listed on Telepcak’s bills, asking them to release Telepcak from the contracts.
He says most of the companies didn’t respond. Those that did, wanted Telepcak to pay thousands of dollars for breaking the contract.
After Go Public approached the companies billing Telepcak, all but one released him from his obligations. None addressed why they sold Telepcak products and services he says he didn’t understand or need.
After years of complaints from consumers, in March, the Ontario government banned unsolicited door-to-door sales. The ban covers most heating, air and water services, but stops short of including companies in other sectors.
Alberta is the only other province with such a ban.
Contracts that violate the new rules are void, and consumers are able to keep the goods and services with no obligations.
Contract lawyer Tom Curran says not only does Ontario’s ban come too late for thousands of people like Telepcak — who signed some of his contracts before the ban — it also does little to stop these kinds of door-to-door sales from happening now.
“The new rules in Ontario put a $500 fine in place, well a $500 fine that’s a licensing fee, it’s nothing else, you add $500 to the cost of the merchandise you’re selling to this incompetent client, it’s not going to do anything at all,” Curran says.
Proving a violation is almost impossible because the people who show up at a consumer’s doorstep often don’t work directly for the company they are selling for, he says. Instead, they are third party representatives who make the sale and then disappear.
“So when the act says that the person who makes that sale could be subject to a fine, it doesn’t really matter,” the lawyer says.
Curran also says the companies behind the contracts will often reinvent themselves or go out of business after selling contracts to financing companies that then collect on the debt. That means the companies that signed the original contracts can’t be held accountable.
Given his mental disability, Telepcak should also have protection under provincial consumer protection laws, but Curran says under those rules violations are also hard to prove.
Government a ‘toothless tiger’
Jordan Redlin is a former door-to-door HVAC sales person who says he quit after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how the sales were done and which customers were being signed.
He now runs his own business, named Cancel It, that aims to get people out of bad contracts. The service can cost thousands of dollars for longer contracts. He says business is booming.
“Unfortunately [Ontario’s Ministry of Government and Consumer Services] is a bit of a toothless tiger,” says Redlin.
“They do have a lot of power as far as investigating into the companies and the issues, however, they do not have the power to actually nullify the contracts themselves.”
Go Public asked Ontario’s Minister of Government and Consumer Services Todd Smith about the gaps in consumer protection laws.
In an email to CBC News he wrote:
“Our government understands the significant concerns consumers have over door-to-door sales. We are committed to making sure that the appropriate protections are in place to protect Ontario consumers.
“We will be working with industry, stakeholders and consumers as we determine next steps. I look forward to providing further updates in the coming months.”
As for John Telepcak, he says he’s learned his lesson and won’t sign any more contracts. He also has his family looking out for him. They plan to put legal measures in place to ensure Telepcak can’t sign any more contracts without the approval of his sister.
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