For months, Lloyd Walker would regulary get a new coin in the mail. Eventually, Walker says he didn’t bother to look — he already knew what was inside the padded white envelopes.

The packages from the Bradford Exchange, an American company that’s been selling collectibles, trinkets and jewelry since the 1970s, had been coming to his St. John’s home since July.

“I think this is outrageous. That shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that sort of a thing,” Walker, 92, said in a recent interview at his St. John’s home. 

Walker said he didn’t knowingly sign up for any subscription program, nor does he want the coins he received. But despite writing to the company to cancel, Walker continued to be charged.

Waker’s story points to a widespread issue in Canada, according to a national advocacy organization for older adults.

Both Walker and CanAge CEO Laura Tamblyn Watts says his experience shows a weakness in the laws that protect consumers in Canada, and are calling on companies to be held accountable for what they consider to be questionable business practices.

A black and white letter.
The invoice and letter, signed by Richard Thomas, director of the board of the Bradford Exchange, indicates any future issues would be charged automatically to the credit card provided by the buyer. However, it is unclear that new items would arrive without the customer ordering them. (CBC)

It started in July when Walker says he believed he ordered a single Platinum Jubilee coin of Queen Elizabeth II as a keepsake for his great-granddaughter’s birthday, after spotting it in a brochure from the Bradford Exchange among other flyers in the mail. 

He said nothing in the flyer led him to believe he would be signing up for anything. 

Soon after placing his order by mail, he received an invoice suggesting he pay the balance by credit card — which Walker did. 

Two weeks later, Walker said he received a coin collector’s box in the mail with a note saying it was a free gift — a foreshadowing of what was to come. 

“I put the box down on the floor alongside of the China cabinet and thought about it a little bit,” Walker said.

“And then about a week or two after, another coin shows up and no invoice, just the coin. So then next thing I got another coin, no invoice.”

The Bradford Exchange website is currently advertising a platinum-plated Queen Elizabeth II collection. 

The website says the coin is $69.99 plus $12.99 shipping, or available in two installments of $34.99. In smaller letters it reads, “each issue.”

A screenshot of an advertisement showing a silver coin.
The Bradford Exchange’s website is advertising a Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Tribute Proof Collection, with the price listed as $69.99 per issue. (The Bradford Exchange)

A hyperlink further down the same page sends customers to a separate link on subscription plans.

“This plan reserves a collection in your name, beginning with your purchase of the first issue,” reads a secondary pop-up window, prompted by clicking the link.

“That means timeliness of delivery and no risk of a future price increase. Usually each issue in your collection is billed and shipped separately to you about once a month, after each previous issue is shipped and paid in full.”

Walker provided CBC News with the flyer that he received in the mail and ordered from, and there was no clear indication customers would be enrolled in a subscription plan.

An up close look at a silver coin in a plastic protective covering. The coin contains a photo of a young Queen Elizabeth.
One of many coins that have arrived at Walker’s St. John’s home since he made an order with the Bradford Exchange in July 2023. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Walker said he got his son to call his credit card company to ask about the charges and was told they were legitimate.

“How can it be legal when I’m not ordering anything?” Walker said.

He sent a letter to the company in October using Bradford’s own self-addressed envelopes, explicitly stating he did not order or want the coins that kept coming. 

But they did continue to come, and so did the biweekly charges of $95. Bank records provided to CBC News show the last automatic withdrawal was made in late December. 

Over $1,000 has been charged to Walker’s credit card to date. No charges have been applied in 2024.

‘It’s dirty’

According to documents provided by Walker to CBC News, there is just one mention of automatic payments on his invoice, and Walker and his granddaughter said it’s not explicitly clear that customers would be on the hook for items they didn’t order themselves. 

“Using your credit card can be the easiest way to pay for your product,” said an invoice signed by a director of the board at the Bradford Exchange. 

“Any future issue(s) will automatically be charged only after shipment is made.”

Lloyd Walker’s granddaughter, Jane Walker, said she believes her grandfather was taken advantage of.

A page from a catalogue.
Jane Walker says she believes the Bradford Exchange is overcharging for items, like an alarm clock for $200, and a tote bag for more than $180. She says seniors who don’t shop online to compare may not know whether items are overpriced. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The business appears to target elderly people with products they sell — many of which are advertised as gifts for grandchildren — and the way in which they sell them, she said. 

Jane Walker said her grandfather would not be used to this type of sales format — where he would buy something and have it automatically become a subscription.

“Looking through this stuff, it’s not clear in any way,” she said, flipping through the Bradford Exchange catalogue. “And when you’re in the fine print and you’re targeting a certain generation, it’s dirty.”

Class action lawsuit settled

Lloyd Walker isn’t alone in his frustration.

A social media page has been created specifically for complaints about the Bradford Exchange’s business practices, with many customers lamenting the difficulty in cancelling automatic renewal subscriptions that they didn’t want in the first place. 

A class action lawsuit was filed in San Diego in 2022 against the Bradford Exchange and sister company Hammacher, Schlemmer & Co., alleging the catalogue companies enrolled certain customers in automatically renewing subscriptions for rewards programs, then posted charges to their accounts without clearly presenting the terms.

In that case, the plaintiffs alleged the companies used pop-up windows on their website promising free shipping to consumers who sign up for their rewards programs. Consumers were then locked into an automatically renewing subscription that charged them $14.95 US each month.

The lawsuit alleged the auto renewal process violated California law, which says it’s unlawful for any business to provide automatic renewal services, unless consumers provide consent and are explicitly aware of what they are signing up for.

Both parties agreed to a settlement in 2023 for nearly a half-million U.S. dollars without any finding or admission of wrongdoing.

In an email to CBC News, Bradford Exchange spokesperson Bobbi Fitzsimmons said the issue was related to a rewards program that was managed by a third party and not the coin collection subscription.

A separate class action lawsuit was filed against the company in August in California, alleging the Bradford Exchange unlawfully enrolled consumers in recurring subscriptions without authorization.

Lawyers for the plaintiff wrote in court filings that the Bradford Exchange frequently sells collection items, but does not make it clear that the displayed price is for a single item each, not for the collection.

The company then enrolls the customers in an ongoing subscription program, where additional items are shipped regularly and charges appear on the customer’s account.

Fitzsimmons said it is company policy not to comment on ongoing litigation, but said the Bradford Exchange believes there is no merit to the claims made in the second class action. 

Customers can ‘request cancellation at any time’

Fitzsimmons said the company takes allegations like Walker’s very seriously and works with customers to resolve any questions and concerns. 

While Fitzsimmons said the company could not comment on Walker’s case specifically at this time, Fitzsimmons said the website “indicates expressly” that it is a collection and subscription plan.

A cardboard flyer.
Walker says he cut out the order form from this flyer he received in the mail to buy a collector’s coin for his great-granddaughter. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

“All customers can contact us with any concerns by phone, email, or correspondence seven days a week,” Fitzsimmons wrote by email.

“The Bradford Exchange offers generous money-back guarantees on most products, including coins, for up to 365 days.”

Fitzsimmons said customers are in full control of their collections and have the ability to request cancellation at any time. 

Automatic credit card charges ‘endemic’

The issue of seniors facing automatic credit card charges has become endemic in Canada, CanAge CEO Laura Tamblyn Watts said, with calls coming into the advocacy organization almost weekly. 

“Auto renewals are notoriously difficult to extract yourself from, and a lot of the practices that we see border on predatory,” she said, speaking generally about the issue.

A blonde woman in a red and black jacket looks directly at the camera.
Laura Tamblyn Watts is the CEO of CanAge, Canada’s National Seniors’ Advocacy Organization. (Laura Tamblyn Watts/CanAge)

Combine that with marketing that targets an older generation and inflated prices, and Tamblyn Watts said it is a recipe for disaster.

“Many older adults, particularly those in their late 80s and 90s, may not be able to do some of that comparison online shopping,” Tamblyn Watts said.

“What we see is that in some cases massively overpriced materials or in other cases frankly, junk, is being sold to people for two to three, sometimes 10 times what their value is, if it has any value at all.”

Is it illegal?

In Newfoundland and Labrador, automatic renewals of loans or subscriptions are not prohibited under the Consumer Protection and Business Practices Act.

Service NL spokesperson Krista Dalton said the act prohibits unfair and unconscionable business practices, and provides remedies for consumers.  

The director of the province’s consumer and financial services division can investigate to determine if the act has been contravened. 

WATCH | Why this Canadian organization says governments need to act quickly to protect consumers: 

More seniors are flagging concerns over the use of automatic renewal subscriptions

CanAge CEO Laura Tamblyn Watts says consumer protection laws need to be strengthened as more older Canadians are faced with companies that “border on predatory.”

“It may be determined that the nature of the complaint is outside the scope of the act or authority of the director,” Dalton said in an email.

A complaint could be forwarded to a federal regulator, like the Competition Bureau of Canada, or a customer may be advised to seek legal advice, Dalton said.  

With the exception of Ontario, which is beefing up consumer protection legislation, Canada has poor consumer protection legislation, said Tamblyn Watts. 

“Unlike in the U.S. and in particular in California where there are real penalties and fines to companies that pursue this, across the country, our consumer protection legislation tends to be very weak,” Tamblyn Watts said.

Companies know that there is money out there and in the pockets of seniors, she said.

Tamblyn Watts said catalogues — and increasingly, email and text messages — have become ways for companies to make it easy to target older individuals.

“We need much stronger consumer protections, and we need to make sure that companies are held to account, particularly for targeting vulnerable populations like seniors.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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