Negative Billing

Most of us have had the experience of being bilked by crafty sales people who sell a product only to include perks that, unless you act right away, you are stuck with, always paying more than what you initially though it would be in the end. Cable companies do it, phone companies are famous for it, and some government agencies are allowed to do it. Negative billing is one of those tools that companies use that prey upon the consumer who does not, or will not make the effort of acting when required to, end a service that was started as a promotion. For example, a well known cable company about eight years ago launched a “specialty” package of several extra channels that it wanted to add as a package feature. The deal was, it made the service free for a few months, long enough for most consumer to become familiar with it, and then you were charged for it on your next bill when the promotion ended. Once the promotion ended, little fan-fare was given about the event other than what was written in the fine print on the bill; each customer who had not indicated that they were not interested with the extra channels were then billed accordingly. The out rage was tremendous as the public cried “rip-off” and groups people threatened to boycott their services if they did not stop the practice of negative billing. The cable corporation backed off from the public outcry–but did so voluntarily.

I was watching a trial at the Vancouver Court House a couple of days ago taking place where the defendant was refusing to pay for one such promotion, and was willing to be taken to court to prove that a wrong was taking place. His argument is much the same as the cable corporation’s billing method: negative billing for a service. Although I missed most of the trial, lasting in total of five days, I did get to hear the final arguments, and the judge’s direction to the jury. It appears that in Canada there are very little rules governing advertising companies who use negative billing as their means of selling and promoting. As long they inform the costumer of the promotion, and give adequate notice, it is all fare game. For me, I think of it as dirty pool, where you dupe the lazy consumer into a product by capitalizing on their apathy and ignorance. In the end, it is up to the buyer to beware: caveat emptor.

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