Buying Goods on Credit, Credit Cards and Credit Bureaus (Script 246)

From Clicklaw Wikibooks

Many people can’t pay cash for consumer goods like a new car or a major appliance. They get a loan or use a credit card so they can buy now and pay later. But if they can’t make their payments, they face legal problems and their credit rating is often affected. People also worry if their credit card is lost or stolen and used by others. This script discusses these issues.

What does it mean to buy something on credit?

Say you want to buy a piano, so you agree with the seller to pay for it over two years, with interest. You get the piano immediately, but the seller still owns the piano until you make all the payments. Or say that you want to buy a new car, but the dealer won’t finance it or you want to deal with your own bank. So you apply for a bank loan and sign an agreement where the bank pays the dealer for the car, and you pay the bank back for the cost of the car, plus interest, over a certain number of months. In both cases, you are buying something on credit.

When you buy something on credit, you typically sign a “security agreement”

The specific agreement may be called several things, like a “conditional sales agreement” or a “chattel mortgage” or a “lease with an option to purchase”. But the type and name of agreement aren’t important because they all work in a similar way. Basically, the agreement will say that you give the seller or lender a “security interest” in the goods as security for what you still owe—like when you give the bank a mortgage on your house.

The only exception is where you have a true lease, usually relating to a car or a large piece of equipment, where you pay monthly for the right to use it. In this case, you have no ownership rights in the item at all, and under the lease agreement, you would have no right to buy the item at the end of the term, although you do have the right to use the car during the lease term.

What rights does the seller or lender have under a security agreement?

Generally speaking, a lender can take back the item secured, sell it and still look to be paid any deficiency. But “consumer goods” are treated differently. Consumer goods are things used or bought for use primarily for personal, family or household purposes. If you default (or stop making payments) on a security agreement for consumer goods, the seller or lender generally has to choose either to seize (take) the goods or sue you for what you owe. The seller can’t do both.

What can the seller or lender do if you’ve paid most of your debt and then default?

With consumer goods, after you have paid back two-thirds of the loan, the lender cannot seize the goods. In BC, once a consumer has paid back two-thirds of the total value of a loan (excluding a mortgage), then the lender or creditor is no longer entitled to seize the item without going to court and obtaining a court order.

What happens if the seller or lender seizes the goods?

Consider the piano example, where you’ve agreed to pay for the piano over two years. After one year, your employer lays you off and you can’t make the payments. The security agreement lets the seller come to your home and seize the piano. The seller chooses to seize the piano but, by law, cannot sell it until giving you 20 days “notice of disposition” and waiting until the end of the 20 days. Section 59 of BC’s Personal Property Security Act lists all the information the seller must give you in the notice.

In response (and assuming the goods seized are consumer goods), you may bring your account up to date, or “reinstate” the security agreement, by paying, within 20 days, the amount in arrears plus the seller or lender’s reasonable costs of seizure. If you reinstate the security agreement, you get the piano back. You also have the right in any situation to pay the balance of your full debt to get the piano back.

But if you don’t pay the amount due in the seller’s notice within 20 days, the seller can either sell the piano or keep it.

If the seller chooses to sell the piano, then they owe a duty to you to use commercially reasonable means to get a reasonable price from the sale of the piano. This doesn’t mean they have to advertise in every paper from here to Calgary, but they must use reasonable efforts to try and sell the piano for a fair market price. After the sale, any amount left over after the seller is paid must be returned to you.

Four important points about seizures:

  • If you’ve paid at least two-thirds of the total price, a seller needs a court order before seizing the property.
  • Sellers who seize property must give you a “notice of proposal” if they plan to keep it. You then have 15 days to give them a “notice of objection” if you don’t want them to keep the property, and they must then sell it.
  • A seller who seizes and sells the property but doesn’t recover the full amount you owe, cannot sue you for the rest of what you owe (if the goods are consumer goods).
  • From the sale money, the seller can keep the amount you owe, plus reasonable costs to seize, store and sell the property, but must then return any left-over money to you, or in some cases, to your other creditors.

What about credit cards—what law protects you?

BC’s Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act protects the public in two ways. The Act controls unsolicited credit cards—the ones sent to people who didn’t apply for them—and it also limits the responsibility of people whose cards are lost or stolen.

You don’t have to accept credit cards you never asked for

If you get this type of card, you don’t have to accept it, and if you don’t, you aren’t responsible for it. However, if you use an unsolicited credit card, you are telling the sender that you’re accepting it, and you’re then responsible for what you buy with it.

What happens if you lose your credit card or it’s stolen?

The Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act says that you don’t have to pay for anything bought with your lost or stolen credit card after you tell the card issuer, such as VISA or MasterCard, that it’s lost or stolen. You can tell the issuer by phone or by registered mail. If someone uses your card before you report it lost or stolen, the Act limits your liability to $50—even if your agreement with the credit card issuer says differently. In cases of theft, many card issuers don’t even charge the $50, in the interest of good customer relations.

What if you let someone use your credit card?

If you let someone use your card, then later change your mind and say they can’t use it, things are different. For example, say you give your card and personal identification number or PIN to a friend or relative to pay your bill at a bank machine. Later, without your authorization, that person uses your credit card and PIN to get cash advances from a bank machine. You’re responsible for this debt.

Bank and debit cards are treated differently from credit cards

Bank and debit cards aren’t covered by the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act. So you’re not protected by the $50 limit if someone steals your bank or debit card and PIN and uses them to get money from your account.

What about credit reporting agencies (sometimes called credit bureaus)?

BC has two laws that regulate the use of personal credit information. Both the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act and the Personal Information Protection Act control how credit bureaus handle personal credit information (such as your marital status, approximate income, and assets and debts owing) and also protect your privacy by controlling access to that information.

No one can ask for a personal credit report on you without your consent

Normally, when you seek credit, you agree that the lender can get your credit report—even if you don’t realize you’re agreeing to this. Application forms for loans, credit cards and jobs usually have small print saying that you authorize any credit bureau to give a credit report on you. But there are situations where your credit information can be released to law enforcement agencies, the courts (by court order) or the director of credit reporting without your apparent consent.

Two major credit bureaus in Canada: Equifax and Trans Union Canada

Both these credit bureaus collect personal credit information and sell it to banks, department stores, employers and others, and you have the right to know what information they have on you. Usually, both agencies have similar information, so if you want to check your credit rating and history, you probably need to check the records of just one of them. You can call Equifax toll-free at 1.800.465.7166. Trans Union Canada’s toll-free phone number is 1.800.663.9980.

Some kinds of information can’t be included in a credit report

A credit report can’t show information about:

  • a criminal offence (unless you’ve been convicted of it)
  • a criminal conviction, once six years have passed since the conviction or since your release or parole if you were in prison
  • race, religion, ethnic origin or political affiliation
  • a bankruptcy, if it’s been more than six years since the discharge, unless it’s a second bankruptcy

You can correct any inaccurate information in your credit file

If you think something in your file is wrong, you can send a letter about the error, and the credit reporting agency must take reasonable step to check the information and respond to you within 30 working days. If you’re right, they have to correct it as soon as possible. They also have to send a correction to everyone who received a report on you in the past year. If the agency doesn’t make the correction you asked for, they have to make a note to your file that you asked for the information to be corrected, so anyone who gets a future report will see this note. Also, if there’s anything in your file that you think should be explained, you have the right to place a statement of up to 100 words on the file, to be given to anyone who obtains a future report.

More information

[updated May 2015]

The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Laura Cox and Wendy Anderson, and edited by John Blois.

© Copyright 2017, Canadian Bar Association British Columbia Branch. Dial-A-Law is a registered trademark owned by Canadian Bar Association British Columbia Branch, a non-profit membership corporation.

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