In May of last year, a woman in Florida added some Latino channels to her Comcast cable TV account. It was priced at around $10 a month. But when her bill arrived that summer, she claims, it said she owned more than $300, thanks to some equipment she never received and a Latino triple-play service that included voice service with international calling. She called customer service, but they said that they couldn’t explain how the new services were added to her bill–and that they couldn’t authorize a refund. She’d have to talk to the billing department for that. And so began a three hour stay in customer service hell that ultimately ended with her being transferred to a fax machine.
This woman’s story is one of the thousands of allegations examined by the Federal Communications during its two year investigation of Comcast, and one of several cited in a settlement published by the agency on Tuesday. In the aftermath of the investigation, Comcast has agreed to pay a $2.3 million fine. That may not sound like much, but according to the FCC, it’s the largest civil penalty it has ever assessed against a cable provider. “It’s bigger than a dollar amount,” says Kate Forscey, an associate counsel for Government Affairs at the digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge. “It’s the agency taking a stand to protect the customers who are being grifted by the cable companies. I hope this won’t’ be a one-off.”
We hope so too. The investigation highlights just how hard it is for customers to get refunds for services they never should have been charged for in the first place. And the rather low fine shows how difficult it is to actually regulate these companies.
Yes and No
The FCC’s rules prohibit Comcast and other companies from charging customers for services they didn’t explicitly sign-up for. In other words, just because you didn’t say “no” to a service or a piece of equipment doesn’t mean your telco can charge you for it. But according the settlement, customers were in some cases charged for services and equipment they did specifically decline. Some customers even claim Comcast reported them to collection agencies while while they were disputing their bills.
The situation brings to mind the recent Wells Fargo scandal, during which employees created unauthorized accounts for customers, in some cases damaging customers’ credit ratings and collecting fees for accounts the customers didn’t even know existed. But Comcast denies any intentional wrongdoing.
“We do not agree with [the FCC’s] legal theory here, and in our view, after two years, it is telling that it found no problematic policy or intentional wrongdoing, but just isolated errors or customer confusion,” the company said in a statement. “We agree those issues should be fixed and are pleased to put this behind us and proceed with these customer service-enhancing changes.”
They Call It Cramming
Indeed, even though the FCC fielded thousands of complaints, that amounts to a small percentage of Comcast’s actual customer base. Telecommunications industry analyst Jan Dawson agrees that it appears that it these particular complaints came from a small subsection of Comcast subscribers, but points out that the practice of adding small fees to customers’ bills has been so common over the years there’s even a name for it: cramming.
Ultimately, it’s not clear how common the problem actually is. “We don’t know the people who didn’t file complaints,” Forscey says. But she believes the number of complains show that these weren’t isolated incidents, rather “a fundamental operation as to how these companies are treating their consumers.”
What’s more, the problem wasn’t just that customers were being billed for services they didn’t sign-up for. It was also ridiculously hard to get those fees reversed, often requiring customers to spend hours on the phone. That sort of thing is certainly in keeping with a the long history of complaints about Comcast that has led to it being ranked at the bottom of 24/7 Wall St.’s annual customer satisfaction poll for seven years in a row.
Keep an Eye Out
In addition to the fees, Comcast has agreed to implement a five year plan to prevent this sort of thing in the future. Under the plan, Comcast will allow customers to “lock” their accounts so new services can’t added, and will refrain from referring disputed charges to collection agencies while the dispute is still under investigation.
But Dawson says we should all still be vigilant. “In any company of sufficient size you’ll always get individuals or managers who bend the rules to try to hit their targets,” he says. “So I’m sure we’ll continue to see at least some examples of this sort of thing going forward.”
So keep an eye on your bill for weird fees.