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Judge authorizes class-action suit against telecom companies over unlocking fees

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A law firm in Montreal is suing the biggest cell phone companies in Canada, alleging they ripped customers off with an "abusive" fee to unlock phones.

"For years, Canadian wireless providers such as Bell Mobility, Fido, Rogers, Telus, Virgin Mobile, and Videotron have been generating hundreds of millions of dollars, charging consumers $50 plus tax to unlock their phones," the lawsuit launched by LPC Avocats reads. "It turns out that these providers intentionally order their devices locked when they could have easily ordered them unlocked and thus avoid imposing the fee on consumers."

Lawyer Joey Zukran and the lawfirm Renno Vathilakis are leading the case, which was authorized by a Superior Court of Quebec judge on Monday.

Zukran explained that the lead plaintiff in the case came forward after she was charged $50 to unlock her phone so she could use another SIM card before travelling to the Philippines to avoid being charged hefty roaming fees. The lawsuit alleges that the companies generated around $110 million for a service that cost them nothing.

"This is clearly a case where the consumers were gouged big time by the telcos by way of these unlocking fees of $50, for something that costs nothing," said Zukran. "At a certain point, this is abusive, and that's what the case is about. The court authorized the class action on the basis of an abusive fee or an abusive amount being charged to consumers."

Zukran said most consumers won't think twice before paying the fee, rather than fighting with a major telecommunication company.

"The problem isn't consumer contracts, at least under Quebec law, even if the consumer accepts a specific provision or a specific clause or a specific fee. If it turns out that it's abusive, or legionary, or unconscionable, which is clearly the case here and our view, then the courts do have the power to either annul the fee completely or reduce it to what it would have been in a fair market," he said.

"In this case, we believe we we strongly believe that the hard cost is zero."

Anyone who was charged a fee to unlock their phone between Aug. 17, 2014 and Dec. 1, 2017 can sign onto the case. The class-action seeks to fully reimburse customers who paid unlocking fees.

None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been tested in court. 

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