Vinod Hukerikar wanted to save money on home phone service. He was happy to find Xpress Call Canada, which offered calls to 72 countries for a $400 flat fee for three years.
“Since we call family in the U.S., U.K. and India a lot, I thought I’d found a good deal,” he said. “I didn’t see any adverse reviews, so I tried out the service. Two weeks later, I cut a cheque for $452 (including HST).”
Everything worked well for a few months. But last December, he could not reach customer service by phone. He had to open a ticket online and wait for an email response.
By February, he realized that the website wouldn’t allow him to log in. And when he visited the company’s office, he saw the staff had disappeared.
“I want my phone number back,” he says. “This is the number my family, friends, kids’ school, banks and government agencies have on record.”
Another consumer paid $300 for five years of service because Xpress Call claimed (falsely) that it was approved by the regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Though he was promised a refund, he has yet to receive it.
While the website still exists, it appears that Xpress Call is gone.
“The phone numbers the BBB had for this company are disconnected and directory assistance does not have a listing for this company. The BBB’s mail to this company has been returned as undeliverable,” says the Better Business Bureau.
Companies that provide Voice over Internet Protocol service (or VoIP) have been around for more than a decade. There are more than 150 in Canada, serving both residences and businesses.
Here are some ways to protect yourself from unreliable Internet phone providers.
Do not prepay for service under a long-term contract. The rates may be unbelievably low, but you could be stuck losing money if the company goes out of business. You may also want to quit if you find the quality suffers or your life suddenly changes.
Ask if the provider allows for the independent review of complaints. Under the rules, companies must join the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS) within days of receiving a complaint.
Service providers that do not comply with the CCTS membership rules will face enforcement action by the CRTC. Those named as non-compliant include Voipgo, NetTalk and Tac Telecom.
Check out reviews of providers at Canadian online discussion forums. Go to Google and type in the company’s name, adding the word “complaints” to see what comes up.
Luis Allegretti, who runs GoneVoip.ca, became suspicious of Xpress Call after finding differences between what it said and what it charged customers. Prices were higher and contracts longer than advertised.
“Customer reviews noted the disconnect,” he says at the website. “Now the provider has folded, several have been left without service.”
Keep your phone service separate from your Internet service. You can pay $10 a month for VoIP phone service (and perhaps even less, if you buy your own modem).
However, you may pay higher rates and get fewer calling features if you bundle your Internet with your phone service. Plus, you may be less susceptible to outages if you keep the services separate.
Check out the customer service before signing up. Does the company offer a toll-free number? Can you reach it by email or live chat? Is there online information? Can you get access to your account online?
Steer away from offers that claim once-in-a-lifetime payment, Allegretti says. These offers usually don’t support number portability.
He also has some advice for stranded customers of Xpress Call:
Send a signed form to the provider you prefer to use, specifying the number to be ported, the address and the current carrier.
Provide the carrier’s last invoice, which could be an email you received when you ordered the service. Ask the VoIP carrier to port your number without changing it.
Ellen Roseman writes about personal finance and consumer issues for the Toronto Star. You can reach her at email@example.com or www.ellenroseman.com.