Monday, November 09, 2009

Cintra en Canada: Death, toll taxes, ghost riders and "mafia shakedowns."

Anger over Hwy. 407 bills

Star readers tell of huge bills sent years after supposed trips

More than 200 readers responded with angry emails after The Fixer asked about billing problems with the 407 Express Toll Road. Some simply gave up fighting and paid the bills.

Read more about 407 ETR Toronto's privatized Spanish toll road [HERE]


By Jack Lakey The Fixer
Toronto Star
Copyright 2009

Invoices for thousands of dollars – mostly interest fees – have been received by hundreds of drivers years after charges were incurred for using the 407 Express Toll Road.

Some got invoices intended for long-dead spouses or parents, in one case billed to a plate that's been mounted on a garage wall since it was cancelled nearly five years ago.

Others said they were far away from Ontario when they were supposedly driving on the toll road.

More than 200 readers responded with angry emails after we asked about 407 billing problems.

Many drivers who tried to fight unfair bills gave up and paid, rather than risk being denied a licence plate renewal – an unparalleled power included in the 99-year lease granted to the private consortium that runs the 407. (In other words: Pay what we say or you don't drive your vehicle.)

One email compared 407 billing to a "mafia shakedown."

Lisa Thompson got a 407 invoice in September billed to a licence plate that belonged to her father, who's been dead for two years and last held an active plate in 2004. The trip allegedly occurred Aug. 9.

The bill said they couldn't record "either the entry or the exit point" for the mystery trip, but still demanded payment of $6.58, Thompson said. She was also asked to fax a copy of a death certificate as proof of his demise.

"If the 407 could not record the entry or exit point," she wonders, "how could they send a bill to a deceased man with expired plates?"

Robert Kelly said he got a bill last February for $4,297.25, including $194.97 in fees and $2,813.99 in interest, on $1,288.87 in toll charges.

"I have not even owned a car since 2002 or 2003, and even then I was only on (the road) once when it was free," Kelly said.

"I am in a nursing home now on a fixed income and my inquiries have been ignored. I don't know what to do."

The 407 says there is nothing wrong with its billing methods, insisting customer service is a priority topped only by safety.

"It is not an indication of a billing problem," 407 spokesman Steve Spencer said of the complaints we received, adding he could not discuss individual cases.

"Your article did ask for people to tell you their bad stories," he noted.

Customers have made more than 500 million trips on the 407 in the past five years, said Spencer, and "the great, great majority of those drivers are happy with our service.

"We're not saying we are perfect. ... But then if the customer does have an issue, we want them to give us a call and we'll try to sort it out."

Of the complaints we received, which were forwarded to the 407, only a few readers said the company's dispute resolution process cut them a break. Others got nowhere, even after appealing to the 407 ombudsman.

Gary Stracina says his overdue 407 bill was sent to collection more than 10 years ago. He had paid it, "but the money was never applied to my account," he writes, "and now, with interest on a dead account, I owe $1,200.

"Numerous trips to their offices on Steeles with a copy of the cashed cheque and promises to resolve the situation have led nowhere. They did, however, mail me a file one-inch thick with invoices they claimed I received."

The most common complaint, like Stracina's, is that a bill arrived out of the blue, demanding an eye-popping amount from drivers certain they owed no money, with no supporting documentation on the invoice.

The 407 charges annual interest of 26.82 per cent on unpaid balances, as well as collection fees and other charges that can swell the total enormously.

Some readers suggested the 407 is in no hurry to collect on outstanding balances, since the clock is ticking on huge interest rates and the company can simply bill later with the potent threat of licence plate denial.

"The 407 billing system sucks," said Shirley Poon. "It sounds like it will suppress the billing and randomly send out the bill after X number of years so they can claim a ridiculous amount of interest."

"My blood comes to a slow boil every time I try to deal with the arrogance at 407 ETR," said Darko Mesich, who recently received bills from early 2005 that grew from $79 to $246, "with no activities besides interest charges and one enforcement fee of $18."

Like many others, including people who have lived at the same address since before the 407 existed, Mesich said he didn't get any bills until the recent invoice, while the 407 maintained he was repeatedly billed but didn't pay.

Erin Lumley said she got a $216.34 invoice last January for an unpaid charge of $5.97 from 2000, adding that she had reported her changes of address in between to the provincial transportation ministry, "but never had an invoice sent to my correct address."

She was told to pay $55 and that an investigation would be done on her account. "In September I received a notice saying the ministry has been instructed not to issue me new plates and my account was being sent to collection."

Spencer says the 407 sends out an unpaid bill for at least a few months and eventually stops mailing them if it isn't paid, but didn't explain why it often stops billing for several years, then manages to find the customer and send a new bill.

"We really do try to get a hold of them as best we can," he said. "When we're getting no response from an invoice, so it's gone out and there's an amount owing still, we actually go to the MTO and we check every month to see if there's been a change in the address."

It may come as a surprise to users that the 407 considers anyone who has used the road even once to have entered into an "implied contract" requiring drivers to promptly notify it of all future changes of address, licence plate or vehicle.

"A new account is opened each time a new licence plate travels on 407 ETR," said Spencer, who then referred to a standard notice on all invoices: "New plate? New address? New car? Remember, we don't receive automatic updates from the Ministry of Transportation, so keeping us up to date will ensure you receive your 407 ETR bill promptly and avoid interest or collection activity."

© 2009 The Toronto Star:

Death, taxes and now, 407 bills

Woman incredulous after highway bills her late husband for trips taken after his death

Diane Tobin says the 407 took money from her bank account to pay for bills supposedly accumulated recently by her late husband, who died in 2004.


By Jack Lakey The Fixer
The Toronto Star
Copyright 2009

Diane Tobin's husband died in 2004, but he's taken up driving on the 407 this year, according to bills sent to her by the toll road.

His licence plate was cancelled in early 2006 and has since been tacked to the wall of their son's garage in Oshawa, but bills from the 407 say he got on several times at Brock Rd. in June and July and cruised over to Airport Rd.

"I'm pretty sure he's dead," said the 64-year-old Tobin, laughing. "He was cremated and we buried his ashes, but he had a real sense of humour. Maybe he's having some fun with me."

When she didn't pay, the 407 twice went into her bank account and withdrew $40 to cover the ghostly trips, even though she thought his automatic-billing arrangement with the 407 was cancelled when she returned his transponder by registered mail soon after he died.

Frank Tobin was battling cancer in 2004 and had to drive from their Port Perry home to Sunnybrook hospital. The 407 was the quickest route, so he got a transponder and arranged automatic withdrawals from their joint bank account.

She thought Frank's business with the 407 had ended with his death, until an invoice billed to his cancelled plate arrived last summer for $13.61.

Incredulous, she got on the phone to the 407. "The guy said, `Don't worry, we'll take care of it,' but later on I got my bank book updated and saw that they'd taken it out of my account."

A second bill for $26.77 showed up in September, she said, which claimed Frank had twice driven from Brock to Airport Rd.

"My son went out to his garage to check, but the plate had been there all along." After the 407 went into her bank account a second time, Tobin hired a lawyer and complained to the Bank of Montreal, which managed to retrieve the cash. Even after the money was recovered, she says, 407 tried to go back into her account and take it again, which was blocked by the bank. Only after the lawyer intervened did the 407 concede it had erred and had no right to take money from her account, she said.

"They offered me the $40 back and another $150 for my trouble, as long as I signed a waiver saying I wouldn't come after them legally and wouldn't talk to anyone about it." She didn't take them up on the offer.


When I first moved into my apartment, July/03, I received mail from for 407 ETR for (a deceased former tenant) and I returned it to them stating the person had died. I am still getting mail for this person from them.
– Alma Anderson

They said I had a bill for $20 from years ago, which they say I didn't pay. Now, with interest, it was $68. In fact, I don't take the 407. Ever. Never did. I tried to argue with them, so they assessed me more late-payment charges, bring the total to over $80.
– Zev Berkovich

One day they sent me a mystery bill for $5 and change. ... I sent them a cheque for the $6. A few weeks later they sent me a cheque back for the same amount (with no explanation).
– Julius P.

We returned our transponder some years ago and, at the time, there was a credit balance of $3 or so on our account. For five years following return of the transponder, we received an invoice EVERY month saying we had a credit balance of $3.
– Gaynor Reader

I finally after years of being a 407 customer sent back my transponder last year and paid my bill. Suddenly last month, I got a bill for, get this, 34 cents!
– Doug Benavidez

I received a mystery 407 bill this summer dating back 5 years for $200! I called and according to their records the unpaid bills stem from months when I wasn't even in the country: I was in Germany on exchange for a full year.
– Karen Brusso

We bought a new house and inherited the 407 bills of the previous owner. That person used the 407 daily, accumulating bills of many thousands of dollars. In the meantime, those bills all kept coming to us – every month. This went on for over three years ... The only way I was finally able to resolve the issue was to contact the ombudsman.
– Anita Thomas

I received numerous bills for a plate number that was sitting on a shelf in my garage. After numerous calls they sent me photos of the vehicle in question. It was a BMW. Never had one. I took the plates to the MTO. The person had modified his plate with blue paint.
– Paul Mackie

© 2009 The Toronto Star:

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