Check your credit card statement. You may be entitled to a refund

When 79-year-old Sheila MacIsaac sat down last spring to watch CBC's consumer watchdog program Marketplace, she had no idea the end result would be almost $4,000 in her bank account.

It took the Dartmouth, N.S., resident months to get the money, and along the way she was told her file was "closed," but she persevered and now has the cash to prove it.

The Marketplace story that alerted her to the issue was about credit card insurance, a product banks marketed as a way to help with credit card payments if a customer lost their job or got sick. The story noted that, regardless of the bank, the insurance can be expensive, hard to claim and may cover only the minimum monthly payment or a small percentage of the balance owing — not the full amount.

It featured people who had been signed up for it without their knowledge and were paying monthly fees that over time amounted to thousands of dollars.

"I didn't do anything for a number of weeks, but the more I thought about it, I thought, 'That could be me,'" MacIsaac said in a recent interview.

She pulled out her RBC Visa statements, and sure enough she was paying an insurance RBC calls Balance Protector. However, she had no recollection of agreeing to it.

She went to her local branch, but staff there referred her to Visa, which in turn sent her to Assurant, the company that handles RBC's credit card insurance claims. She was told they'd "look into it."

CBC

She said she subsequently received a call from a woman named Beverley at Assurant who played a recording of a call previously made to MacIsaac in which the salesperson was trying to sell her the product.

"It was me, years ago, talking to some man telling me all the benefits of balance protection and you'll hear me saying, 'Oh, I see,' but that's not saying I signed up for it," MacIsaac said.

During the call with Beverley, MacIsaac was told "the file is closed." She requested a letter confirming she had agreed to purchase the insurance. It never arrived, but she did receive another call from Beverley reiterating the case was closed and to contact the bank's ombudsperson if she wasn't satisfied.

Steve Lawrence/CBC

Instead, MacIsaac called CBC. We, in turn, contacted RBC. The bank's spokesperson responded, saying it was investigating and would be reaching out to the client to discuss options.

Less than two weeks later, MacIsaac received a phone call telling her she would be refunded $3,900.

That was followed by an unsigned letter from Assurant, which said the credit was being issued "as a customer service gesture because you are a valued RBC Royal Bank customer."

The letter did not provide proof she had signed up for the insurance, but said since the date of enrolment (which was not specified) "you have contacted us a few times to discuss the coverage under the Balance Protector plan." It claimed she had previously acknowledged the coverage and had wanted to maintain it.

MacIsaac said she has called several times, but only since seeing the Marketplace story. She said she has no recollection of ever agreeing to the charge. Assurant has not responded to CBC's request for comment.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

In an email to CBC, RBC spokesperson Trish Vardy apologized for any confusion. 

"After fully investigating Ms. MacIsaac's file, we decided to offer her the refund she was seeking. Our goal is to ensure clients are happy with the products they purchase," Vardy said.

'Demonstrable consent' needed, advocate says

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said credit card insurance is a "big line item" for banks and they make quite a bit of money from it. He has had his own personal experience with a phone call trying to sell him the product.

He said just agreeing to comments such as "it would be a good idea to have this insurance" may be enough to get you signed up, even though you didn't agree to it. He advises people to hang up on these calls, but said if you do take the call, never say "yes" in response to anything because it may be misconstrued as your agreement. 

He said all of this indicates change is needed.

"I think it's disappointing the banking industry feels they have to effectively trick people into taking this add-on product," he said.

"If they're going to sell a product that is very low value for the consumer, hard to access and very expensive, then at the very least I believe they should have a very clear positive duty to get really demonstrable consent so they're absolutely certain that person wants to have that kind of coverage," he said.

Christopher Gargus/CBC

He said a written and signed statement confirming a person wants to buy the insurance is needed, "instead of a vague reference to something on the phone that they then interpret as someone agreeing to pay all this extra money."

14 others have contacted Marketplace

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, which oversees whether banks are complying with consumer protection measures, has addressed credit card insurance and calls it "problematic" and a "high risk to consumers."

The agency said it might not be the right fit for consumers who have coverage from another insurance policy, and it urges people to compare the coverage and cost with other insurance options.

David Common, the Marketplace host who reported on credit card insurance last April, said so far the show has been contacted by 14 people, not including MacIsaac, who have received refunds totalling $70,000. Another six people said they've received money back, but haven't disclosed how much.

Meanwhile, MacIsaac is telling everyone she knows to check their credit card statements to ensure they're not paying for unwanted insurance.

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