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‘I was beginning to lose hope’: Woman battles bank for 2 years for information on her own account

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An Edmonton woman who spent two years battling her bank for information about her own account is defying a confidentiality agreement to go public about what happened, in a bid to shed light on a highly secretive system she says is stacked against the customer.

« Numerous phone calls, numerous emails. I documented everything, » Rhonda McMillan told Go Public during an interview at her home where she showed us boxes of paperwork — the result of her long fight with CIBC for a document she believed would confirm unauthorized activity on her account.

In 2016, McMillan noticed $691 had been moved from an account belonging to her and her husband to an account she had with her son which was closed a month earlier.

McMillan says the bank slip she fought two years to get appears to show that a CIBC manager and another employee signed their own names authorizing the transfer of the money, reopening the account without her knowledge or permission.

« It wasn’t our signatures and it shook us, » says McMillan.

She has no idea why the bank would do that, and may never know. After waiting months and months to get the document she wanted, she says the bank told her too much time had passed to get answers. 

Two years after money was transferred from her account, Rhonda McMillan still doesn’t know why the transaction occurred without her authorization. These are just some of the documents she has chronicling her fight with CIBC. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

But it’s not only the unauthorized transaction itself that concerns McMillan — it’s how hard she had to fight to get basic information about activity on her own account and get answers to what happened and why.

« I was beginning to lose hope. I’m pretty persistent, but I was getting worn down, » she says.

Secretive complaint system

The banking complaints system is surrounded by secrecy and dominated by the banks, says Wanda Morris, a consumer advocate with CARP.

« We’re at a crisis, » says Morris, who would like to see a major overhaul of the system. 

In order to get the document she was looking for, McMillan initially filed a complaint with CIBC’s ombudsman. 

The bank and its ombuds service told her she had to sign a confidentiality agreement, promising not to tell anyone what the document revealed, and not to disclose anything about the investigation or any settlement to anyone.

If they want to come after me … then bring it on.– Rhonda McMillan

McMillan  says she reluctantly agreed to sign the gag order, but contacted Go Public anyway, after receiving a copy of the bank slip for the transaction she says was carried out without her knowledge.

« If they want to come after me … then bring it on, » McMillan told Go Public in an email.

Both the bank’s internal ombudsman and the national independent ombuds service, OBSI, required Rhonda McMillan to sign confidentiality agreements. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Go Public asked CIBC specific questions about the case, but the bank didn’t offer an explanation. In a statement, a spokesperson wrote that CIBC « strongly disputes the nature of the allegations. »

« As the matter is going through a dispute resolution process, we are unable to comment further, » CIBC spokesperson Tom Wallis wrote.

‘No wrongdoing,’ but settlement offered

McMillan didn’t lose any money but the bank did offer a financial settlement.

« They just would say there’s no wrongdoing — we’re not admitting to any wrongdoing, but here’s our settlement, » McMillan said.

Unhappy with the results of the investigation by the bank’s ombudsman, McMillan escalated her case to the national independent Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments (OBSI), and was again asked to sign another non-disclosure agreement. 

That investigation resulted in another settlement offer, but again, no explanation for why the money transfer was carried out without her knowledge. 

Lack of transparency

Canada’s banking complaints system needs to be more transparent, says Morris. 

Consumer advocate Wanda Morris of CARP says the current complaints system for banks is tilted in favour of financial institutions. (Rosa Marchitelli/CBC)

She says the system allows banks to chose which dispute resolution service will handle their customer complaints. ​

OBSI is a non-profit, independent consumer dispute service started by the federal government in 1996. It now only investigates two of Canada’s big banks — BMO and CIBC.

The three other big banks — Scotiabank, RBC and TD — jumped ship from OBSI and moved to ADR Chambers Banking Ombuds Office, a private company.

« We have a situation where essentially banks get to choose their referee, » says Morris. « And they’re consistently choosing the referee that investigates fewer complaints, that finds fewer of those complaints in favour of customers, and has less transparency about their findings. »

Neither OBSI nor ADR Chambers publicly releases the results of their investigations, the names of the banks involved or the amount of compensation handed out.

Sarah Bradley is the Ombudsman at OBSI, one of two external dispute resolution services used by banks in Canada. Banks are allowed to decide which service they use. (Gary Morton/CBC)

All banking consumer dispute services require non-disclosure agreements. Sarah Bradley, ombudsman at OBSI, says without the agreements, banks would be more cautious about taking part in investigations.

She wants to see one, non-profit, public service dispute resolution service that handles all banking complaints and is mandatory for all banks.

« The government of Canada should look at this issue very carefully. And it’s our view that the best interests of Canadian consumers would be served by having one ombudsman, » Bradley says.

Proposed legislation

Last week, the federal government introduced Bill C-86 (the Budget Implementation Act 2), which it says will improve consumer protection and make the banking complaints process more transparent.

If passed, it would:

  • Require banks to keep a record of all complaints and make the information available to the commissioner of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (but not public).
  • Publicly identify banks that commit serious breaches of their legal obligations.
  • Prohibit banks from using misleading terms regarding their complaints-handling procedures, including terms that suggest independence. That includes the use of the term ombudsman.
  • National dispute resolution services (OBSI and ADR Chambers) would have to publish on their website a summary of their final recommendations and the reasons for them.

The proposed legislation doesn’t include a plan for one independent dispute resolution service. 

« We expect all approved external complaint bodies to maintain a strong reputation for being operated in a manner consistent with the standards of good character and integrity, and to ensure that complaints are addressed in an impartial and independent manner, » Pierre-Olivier Herbert, press secretary for Bill Morneau, wrote in an email to Go Public.

Moved money to credit union

McMillan says the OBSI investigation is now over and she’s waiting to receive a financial settlement from the bank.

She’s now moved all of her family’s money out of CIBC to a credit union.  She started the process while trying to get the bank to hand over her account record — transferring money out little by little — while CIBC played what she calls « the procrastination game » with the document she wanted.

With files from Ana Komnenic

Submit your story ideas

Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.

We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.

We want to hear from people across the country with stories you want to make public.

Submit your story ideas at Go Public.

Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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