Cellphone retailers fail mystery shopping test, researchers plan to tell CRTC inquiry

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When Sean Grassie​, Kristianne Anor and Tara Hristov headed to cellphone retailers in the Ottawa area recently, they weren’t your average customers looking for a cellphone plan — they were University of Ottawa law students, on assignment as mystery shoppers.

Their mission? To test the consumer experience at the cellphone counter.

The students and the team’s co-leader will present their « frustrating » findings today in Gatineau, Que., at a week-long CRTC public hearing into misleading and aggressive sales practices by Canada’s telecom service providers.

The hearing is part of an inquiry the federal government ordered, after months of reporting on the issue by Go Public, which heard from more than 800 frustrated telecom customers and more than 200 current and former employees of the companies.

« The marketplace doesn’t work well for consumers, » says Mary Cavanagh, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Law, Technology and Society, « and we think the government is abdicating their responsibility if they don’t deal with it. »

Mary Cavanagh co-led a mystery shopper study that found cellphone retailers gave ‘incomplete, unclear or misleading information’ when asked about service plans. (Submitted by Mary Cavanagh)

The mystery shoppers made 36 visits to six major cellphone retailers in Ottawa and Gatineau testing to see how much information they’d be provided about buying a cellphone and a service plan — such as price, data limits and cancellation fees — and whether they’d be given any written material to take away for review.

« People are not getting enough information to make an informed decision, » Cavanagh told Go Public.

‘No consistency’

The mystery shoppers began their research in the summer of 2016, visiting six major retailers to test what would happen when they inquired about purchasing a cellphone service plan. 

The shoppers visited two different locations for each retailer, armed with a checklist based on the Wireless Code — designed to empower and inform consumers.

They repeated that test in the summer of 2018, and added a second test — asking about buying a cellphone along with a service plan.

« We found virtually no consistency, » says Cavanagh, « in either the information topics covered, or in the quality of the information that was conveyed. »

Out of 36 visits, only once did an employee give clear, comprehensive and accurate information to the mystery shoppers.

The checklist

As soon as the mystery shoppers left each retailer — sometimes a store, sometimes a kiosk in a mall — they would fill out a 16-page checklist of over 100 questions.  

Here are some of the questions on the checklist:

  • Did the salesperson speak clearly?
  • Did the salesperson ask enough questions to identify your needs?
  • Did the salesperson explain overage charges?
  • Did the salesperson explain how a contract can be cancelled?
  • Did the salesperson discuss what would happen if the device was lost or stolen?

More than 50 per cent of the time, topics from the checklist were never mentioned, despite prompts by the shoppers themselves and employees from all six retailers repeatedly gave poor or incorrect information.

The burden should not be on the consumer to ask all the smart questions.– Mary  Cavanagh , university prof

« The information was completely lacking, » says Cavanagh. 

« You should be telling me about warranties. You should be telling me about extensions, about what happens after an offer terminates. The burden should not be on the consumer to ask all the smart questions. »

The group’s research findings also noted that there was « very little use of followup questions to put a customer’s needs into context, » that many of the interactions seemed « rushed even when they were the only customers in the kiosk » and that staff provided only « minimal responses » to questions.

Employees not helpful

Besides the checklist, the mystery shoppers made written observations about what happened, immediately after leaving a cellphone provider’s store or kiosk. 

In one instance, a mystery shopper noted, « When we asked for something in writing, she [the employee] said she did not have anything to give us and could not print from the computer, so she wrote out some basics on a sticky note and gave that to us. »

On another visit, an employee told a mystery shopper that they could « take a picture of a piece of paper on the wall, » that had some pertinent details.

One mystery shopper writes that another employee « just handed me the brochure and then stared at me after each question. »

‘Something in writing’ needed

Not one visit resulted in a mystery shopper leaving with detailed information in writing.

The research paper says the mystery shoppers « observed a consistent reluctance and/or explicit denial of requests for written information or documentation that a customer could take away with them. »

A team of researchers from the University of Ottawa discovered that retailers selling cellphone plans were reluctant to provide information in writing. (CBC)

« It’s completely unfair to consumers, » she says. « We know that people are very poor at retaining complex information that’s only delivered verbally. »

At the CRTC hearing, Cavanagh and her students will be urging the regulator to introduce rules making it mandatory for cellphone retailers to provide details in writing to potential customers.

« What are they [telcos] afraid of? » says Cavanagh. « What’s at risk for them in providing a more robust package of information? It’s needed to make what is called an informed decision. »

‘Hide the pamphlets’

Anuj Taxali says he was deliberately instructed not to help customers make an informed decision when he worked in a retail cellphone store several years ago.  

In his written submission to the CRTC — and in an earlier Go Public story — Taxali said that in 2014 he briefly worked at a Toronto cellphone store that was frequented by senior citizens.

Although they were just looking for a low cost « pay as you go » plan, Taxali writes that his manager « told us to hide the pamphlets » about that option. 

« She told us to instead sell these customers more expensive … plans with a large number of minutes and internet data, » writes Taxali, « even though we genuinely believed these plans were not the most appropriate option for such customers. »

Seniors struggle in retail stores

Taxali’s allegations are disturbing to Wanda Morris, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, a national advocacy association for people over age 50.

« That is such an unethical practice, » says Morris. « After working so hard to get less costly [cellphone] options for people that suit their needs, it’s hard to hear about people being misled. »

CARP is part of the Fair Communications Sales Coalition, a group that includes the National Pensioner Federation and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (ACORN), which advocates for low income families.

Wanda Morris, of CARP, says older Canadians need written cellphone contract details that they are able to take home for review. (Submitted by Wanda Morris)

The coalition is also making a presentation to the CRTC today, arguing that Canadians are being misled and coerced into signing up for products and services that they knowingly would never have purchased.

« We’ve certainly heard from people that they don’t feel they’re getting the full story when they go into a store, » says Morris. « If they’re shown anything to read at all, they’re given print that’s too small to read. »

Mary Cavanagh is hoping the federal government is paying close attention to this week’s hearing.

« Is this the kind of marketplace that they really want to support? » asks Cavanagh. « Is this a competitive marketplace that also supports consumers? I would say so far, not very well. »

With files from Enza Uda

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Sidewalk Lab’s use of cellphone data in proposed U.S. deal raises concern in Toronto

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Your cellphone knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you’re awake. It knows where you’ve been and it sends all that information to Google.

As Toronto contemplates allowing the American tech behemoth to build one of the world’s first “smart neighbourhoods” on the eastern waterfront, details have emerged of how Google proposes to collect and commodify data collected from millions of cellphones — and sell it to government.

The Sidewalk Toronto plan is a proposed 12-acre development along the eastern waterfront intended to use technology to improve the lives of its residents.
The Sidewalk Toronto plan is a proposed 12-acre development along the eastern waterfront intended to use technology to improve the lives of its residents.  (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company, recently entered into negotiations to sell the state of Illinois an urban planning tool that maps out commuting patterns based on people’s cellphone location data, which the company “de-identifies” to protect privacy.

The tool, called Replica, is a real-world example of what Sidewalk Labs — which has been vague about its plans for the future Quayside development — says it will do with data. And the company has said it will bring the program to Toronto.

Read more:

Waterfront Toronto ‘not shying away’ from Sidewalk Toronto data privacy questions, senior official says

Tech expert resigns from advisory panel on Sidewalk Toronto over data ownership concerns

Sidewalk Labs launches research grants to study human behaviour

“GPS data should provide the characteristics of individual travellers,” said two Illinois public servants in a public procurement document filed in February, adding that the depersonalized data allows for “analysis of not only what trips are being made, but by whom.”

The state began negotiations for an anticipated three-year, $3.6 million sole-sourced contract for Replica earlier this year. The contract hasn’t yet been signed, a state official said this week.

In the wake of two high-profile resignations of Waterfront Toronto advisers who question whether the future development will benefit the public, and an Associated Press investigation that showed Google tracks people even when they turn off tracking on their phones, critics question whether Toronto should volunteer to be a guinea pig for the company’s urban experiment.

According to the documents filed in Illinois, Replica will be used to build a travel demand model that would allow city planners to “run alternative scenarios for where traffic would go if a new bridge or road were constructed.”

“It’s clearly in the public good for some of this info to be used for city planning,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “But do people even know their data is being collected?”

“Is it reasonable for that data to be used by a for-profit vendor to sell back to the government?” she asked. “It’s a morass of ethical issues.”

The tool, which Sidewalk is in the process of selling to Kansas City and Illinois, has been offered for Toronto to use in the future free of charge, said Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Dan Levitan.

Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, is planning a major project at the waterfront's Quayside location. The primarily residential project is set to feature buildings made entirely from timber.
Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, is planning a major project at the waterfront’s Quayside location. The primarily residential project is set to feature buildings made entirely from timber.  (Supplied)

Jim Balsillie, former CEO of Canadian technology giant Research In Motion, reviewed the Illinois procurement documents for Replica and said it reinforced his belief that Waterfront Toronto should have developed a policy on how data would be handled before signing a deal with Sidewalk Labs, not after.

“This is precisely the type of technology that shows the unique power of citizen and sensor data. If this is introduced in Toronto it will have major implications for privacy, prosperity, values and democracy,” he told the Star.

The Sidewalk Toronto plan is a proposed 12-acre development intended to use technology to improve the lives of its residents. A detailed project description hasn’t been released but in public meetings, Sidewalk Labs has discussed sensors on roadways that could measure things like temperature or air quality.

Critics of the project warn it could result in “mass surveillance” and privacy invasions, and there are also calls for the data collected to be controlled by government rather than a large profit-oriented U.S. corporation.

The sales pitch for Sidewalk Lab’s Replica is simple: Cities spend millions on household travel surveys for traffic planning. Data gathered from cellphones provides much more reliable data, that updates more frequently, at a cheaper cost to the government. Replica uses sophisticated algorithms to protect the privacy of people whose phones were used to create commuting projections.

“Cities, transit agencies, and planning departments are already buying anonymized and aggregated location data to understand how people move around in cities. Replica combines this data with census information to create a richer and more accurate model of how people travel, while using a synthetic, virtual population to ensure much more rigorous privacy,” Nick Bowden, who leads the team building Replica, said in a statement sent to the Star.

“It’s clearly in the public good for some of this info to be used for city planning,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “But do people even know their data is being collected?”
“It’s clearly in the public good for some of this info to be used for city planning,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “But do people even know their data is being collected?”  (Supplied)

In April, Bowden wrote a blog post on Sidewalk Toronto’s website introducing the Replica tool for city planners and said the program would be used in Toronto.

“We are currently building Replica to support the development of plans for Sidewalk Toronto,” Bowden wrote. “We’ll be sharing Replica with local Toronto researchers and public agencies to gather feedback and make it more useful to them.”

Contacted this week, Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Levitan said those statements were aspirational and while Replica may be brought to Toronto in the future, “the Replica team is now focused on developing their model for other cities in the U.S.”

Replica analyzes people’s movement through a city without actually using real people’s data, according to the Sidewalk Labs’ website. Instead, a “synthetic population” of “doppelgangers” is created with GPS data from millions of actual cellphones and then adjusted according to the census data to make it statistically accurate. This way, there are precisely the correct number of rich people and poor people, of single mothers and university students, of cyclists and truck drivers, in each area of the city. But none of these people are real; they’re simply modelled on real people.

Replica’s location data “is collected by third party mobile apps with all identifying information — like names and phone numbers — removed,” the website states.

It is unclear whether Replica, if brought to Toronto, would later come with costs. The Illinois procurement documents describe a “charter customer program” that allows customers “to evaluate Replica risk-free and only pay when the customer acceptance criteria has been met.”

Ironically, just before Illinois entered into negotiations to purchase Replica, the state was poised to enact one of the strictest cellphone privacy laws in the world, which prohibited companies from collecting geolocation data from anyone’s phone without their express consent. After it was passed by the state assembly, Illinois governor Bruce Rauner vetoed the bill.

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