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Has COVID-19 messed up your finances? Here’s how to fight for a fair deal

The COVID-19 pandemic has halted life as we know it. You can’t go about your daily routine anymore and many people say they’re left paying for services they’re not using and want to know how to successfully negotiate to get their money back. 

Consumer rights advocate Ellen Roseman did a Q&A with Marketplace co-host Asha Tomlinson addressing a number of Canadians’ concerns, including everything from rents and mortgages to daycares.

Here’s how Roseman says you can fight for a fair deal.  

Asha Tomlinson: What are the options for people who can’t pay their rent?

Ellen Roseman: I think that first of all, they should be very clear with their landlord that they are not going to pay their rent. I’ve seen online, some actual letters, templates for letters, that you can write to the landlord to tell them why you are not paying the rent, and just send it to them. 

Renters do have some concessions right now. There’s a temporary suspension of evictions. In some provinces, they’re also making it clear that if you fall behind on your utilities, that won’t be an issue, you’ll catch up later.

Asha Tomlinson: One viewer had this question about mortgage deferrals: ‘You have two options, keep paying or you can pay a lot more later. The banks will either make their regular profits or enjoy even larger gains because of this health crisis. Isn’t this a form of gouging?’

Ellen Roseman:  A mortgage deferral is very ambiguous. Some people probably thought the bank was going to absorb their mortgage payment. You’ll pay interest on those interest payments that you didn’t pay earlier. So it does sound like a form of gouging.

So what I got from talking to financial planners is, it sounds inviting, but the way the government wrote it … it’s for people in real financial need. If you’re in a household with two incomes and things are slower than before but if you can manage to pay them on time, you’re probably better to pay your mortgage payments and not defer them. 

Condos and apartment buildings are seen in downtown Vancouver in 2017. Some of Canada’s biggest landlords say they’re committed to working with tenants who have lost their job because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A credit expert said that because these payments are going to be late, the two credit bureaus in Canada — Equifax and TransUnion—might not have the ability yet to show … a deferred payment versus a late payment. So they might be putting something negative on your credit report and your score, which doesn’t look good. 

I wouldn’t say that you should defer your mortgage just because it sounds like free money. Decide if you really need to do it, and for many families that’s again just going through their budget and figuring out what comes first and if they can afford to keep paying those payments. Do it the right way, and don’t defer because that’s for people who are in terrible hardship.

I’d say that the best thing to do is if you had a mortgage broker that helped you with the mortgage, call them up, see what their advice is. They usually have the computer system to be able to figure out the numbers, to crunch the numbers and come out with exactly how it would work in your case. And if you bought it directly from the bank, then see if you can find someone in the bank to go through it with you.

Asha Tomlinson: Can a daycare continue to charge fees when they’re shut down?

Ellen Roseman: It doesn’t sound right to me, you know, that they should charge fees when they are shut down. 

Well, if you are paying a daycare, it’s probably like any other payment. If it’s on a credit card, you can go to your credit card company and see if they can help with that. If you are taking it out of your bank account, you might talk to your bank about suspending payments, maybe they’ll help you with that.

Daycares are closed throughout the country because of COVID-19. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Maybe if they can come up with a compromise for you, rather than taking all the money out, maybe they just take a portion of the money out … If you’re comfortable with your daycare, hope to get a compromise of some kind, if you can.

Asha Tomlinson: What do you think the best strategy is to contact Ticketmaster for people who can’t get through to get a refund on tickets for cancelled or postponed events?

Ellen Roseman: I usually search for a media contact or public relations contact because that’s who I use as a reporter, but I think that for the public if you can find that, then you have a name and a phone number and often an email address. Sometimes you can really get through to them by just telling them about your circumstances, the fact that it’s so important for you to get this money back; is there a way that they can help you escalate your complaint. 

My advice to you is to be as succinct as possible. Don’t give a long story because nobody’s going to listen. Please don’t start getting too emotional, just be very factual, tell them the circumstances and if you can get to the right person, they will often cancel … and give you a cash refund.

If you can’t get anywhere … you can go to your credit card company. Most of these tickets are bought on a credit card, and say: “I don’t want to go through with this, times have changed, my circumstances have changed. I really can’t afford it. Can you put in a chargeback?” which means that the money that was taken out of your account is charged back to the merchant.

Asha Tomlinson: There are so many costs involved with organizing a wedding. You’ve got the photographers, caterers, the venues … How do you cancel these services or reschedule without paying more?

Ellen Roseman: Wedding venues in general tend to have non-refundable deposits. They will make it harder and harder to cancel as you get closer to your wedding date. 

Asha Tomlinson: One of our viewers was told if he wanted to reschedule his wedding, he would have to pay a change fee. Should that be allowed at a time like this?

Ellen Roseman: It shouldn’t, but it’s like the airlines. If you want to change your trip, they’re charging a change fee. So when you hear about these extra fees, just say, “I can understand under normal conditions this might be applicable, but  this is a special case, this is a time when everything is different, and we’re finding it hard enough to reschedule our wedding, to reschedule all our guests …  but we want to have the best possible day and it worries us if we’re feeling that the financial penalties we are paying are going to take away from our joy on this day.” 

Joshua and Anastasija Davis didn’t let COVID-19 stop them from having their wedding as planned, but many couples have been forced to delay their ceremonies. (Jan Frew)

So you do have some power as a consumer to say, “Isn’t it better to have my wedding at a future date, without charging me these fees, as opposed to making me so angry that I’ll cancel right away and do something completely different.”

After this, there might be a lot of couples who are really changing their wedding plans and it will be harder for these venues to book. They should be happy to have a loyal customer who can accept some changes, but doesn’t want to pay penalties to make those changes. 

Asha Tomlinson: How can Canadians negotiate in this new normal?

Ellen Roseman: Talk to people in your network and say, “Do you negotiate with these companies? What are your tips on how to do it? What do you find successful?”… Be concise, try and put it in writing. Phones take a lot more time so if you can put it in writing, do it on email, do it on chat. 

You take the top three, your biggest complaints, no more than three and just let them work on that. Try to write it in a way that it’s not just one giant paragraph that goes on for three or four pages. So do all that and follow up with a phone call. Try to get to a point where you can escalate; remember that word escalate because that [is a word] companies understand — it means go up the ladder. 

Try to find a real person to talk to, so get out of the call centre if you possibly can and find a way to escalate it to a higher level.

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