Comcast hit with the largest civil penalty ever given to a cable operator about consumer complaints and ordered to put in place a compliance plan

“In some complaints, subscribers claimed that they were billed despite specifically declining service or equipment upgrades offered by Comcast. In others, customers claimed that they had no knowledge of the unauthorized charges until they received unordered equipment in the mail, obtained notifications of unrequested account changes by email, or conducted a review of their monthly bills.” — FCC Consent Decree

The Federal Comminications Commission (FCC) has its own enforcement arm and they took action against Comcast for wrongfully charging cable TV customers for services and equipment they never ordered nor authorized.

The Communications Act and the FCC’s rules prohibit a cable provider from charging its subscribers for services or equipment they did not affirmatively request, a practice known as “negative option billing.” Negative option billing burdens customers with the responsibility of contacting a cable company to dispute the charges and obtain refunds.

The Communications Act and the FCC’s rules prohibit a similar practice by telecommunications carriers when unauthorized charges are placed on customers’ phone bills, an abuse known as “cramming.”

“It is basic that a cable bill should include charges only for services and equipment ordered by the customer — nothing more and nothing less. We expect all cable and phone companies to take responsibility for the accuracy of their bills and to ensure their customers have authorized any charges.” — Travis LeBlanc, FCC Chief of the Enforcement Bureau

The Commission received numerous complaints from consumers alleging that Comcast added charges to their bills for unordered services or products, such as premium channels, set-top boxes, or digital video recorders (DVRs).

Consumers described expending significant time and energy to attempt to remove the unauthorized charges from their bill forward and obtain refunds. In response to these complaints, the FCC undertook an investigation of the company.

Under the terms of the settlement, Comcast will pay the largest civil penalty assessed from a cable operator by the FCC and implement a five-year compliance plan. Specifically, Comcast will adopt processes and procedures designed to obtain affirmative informed consent from customers prior to charging them for any new services or equipment. Comcast will also send customers an order confirmation separate from any other bill, clearly and conspicuously describing newly added products and their associated charges.

Further, Comcast will offer to customers, at no cost, the ability to block the addition of new services or equipment to their accounts.

In addition, the settlement requires Comcast to implement a detailed program for redressing disputed charges in a standardized and expedient fashion, and limits adverse action (such as referring an account to collections or suspending service) while a disputed charge is being investigated.

Comcast agreed to the fine “without admitting guilt”

In response, Comcast said the complaints stemmed for human error, or poor customer service, and not intentional deception. Comcast says the incidents were “isolated errors” or “customer confusion.”

“We agree those issues should be fixed and are pleased to put this behind us and proceed with these customer service-enhancing changes.” — Comcast

You can view the Consent Decree here.
Source: FCC News Release

Other Cases Pending against Comcast

There are other cases still active, like the one filed by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Ferguson says Comcast has committed more than 1.8 million violations of the state’s Consumer Protection Act, citing improper credit screening practices and charging fees for service calls.

In addition, Ferguson says Comcast deceived customers for what he calls a “near-worthless” service plan. As such, he’s filed a $100 million dollar lawsuit against the cable and internet company.

“This case is a classic example of a big corporation deceiving its customers for financial gain…I won’t allow Comcast to continue to put profits above customers — and the law.” — Bob Ferguson, Washington State Attorney General.

The lawsuit claims that Comcast “misled” customers — more than 500,000 — by charging a $4.99 fee each month for a service protection plan. By paying this fee, customers would avoid being charged a fee for a technician to visit their location if a covered item needed repair.

However, Comcast didn’t always let customers know that it didn’t cover the wiring inside a wall in the home. In fact, Ferguson said the investigation revealed that 75% of the time, Comcast representative told customers the plan did indeed cover all insider wiring, when it doesn’t.

The AG’s office got hold of the scripts customer service reps use when talking to customers. It told Comcast employees to say the plan covers calls “related to inside wiring” and “wiring inside your home,” when — according to Ferguson — it doesn’t.

Comcast has disputed the AG’s findings.

“The complaint offers little more than speculation about hypothetical billing errors that the Attorney General does not allege have actually occurred… even if those errors did occur, they would at most amount to isolated breaches of contract, not unfair or deceptive practices warranting a $3.6 billion legal complaint by the state’s Attorney General.” — Comcast in court filings

In response, the AG said the practices Comcast used were systematic, over a period of years in which they set about “to induce Washington state consumers — hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them — to put their hard-earned dollars for a product that was not what Comcast promised.”

The other issue has to do with credit checks. Comcast requires new customers to pay a deposit on equipment. Customers can get that fee waived if they undergo a credit check and it shows they have good credit. Ferguson cites more than 6,000 times, according to the AG’s investigation, that people paid deposits and still had their credit checked, or that the company required the deposit even though the people had a high credit score.

“Over and over and over again, Comcast most certainly did not play by the rules.” — Bob Ferguson, Washington State Attorney General

Beth Hester, VP/External Affairs for Comcast in Washington Comcast said the service protection plan covers “99% of their (consumer) repair calls” and it has made imporvements based on suggestions from the AGF’s office.

“It took the filing of our complaint before correcting some of the steps. That doesn’t change the fact that for the better part of a year they did nothing.” — Bob Ferguson, Washington State Attorney General

Lawsuit seeks restitution

The lawsuit is seeking $73 million to pay back payments made by subscribers for the Service Protection plan. In addition, it is asking for restitution for service calls that applied an “improper resolution code” which led to charges, removal of the improper credit checks from credit reports, that Comcast clearly disclose the limitations of its Protection plan, and put in place practices to correct the problems.

In addition, it’s seeking up to $2,000 for each violation of the Consumer Protection Act.

“We stand behind our products and services and will vigorously defend ourselves.” – Beth Hester, VP/External Affairs for Comcast

Horror Stories Abound

Comcast has been fighting a bad consumer image for years. The horror stories that have surfaced just in the past couple of years have been many. Customers have been documenting their cases, recording customer service reps, and showing off examples of truly bad service.

Stories like these certainly haven’t helped the industry’s image:

Dann Furia’s 25 calls over 6 months to get to resolved when he was charged $360 in “unreturned equipment fees” for equipment he not only returned, but recorded himself returning it and had a receipt signed by a rep showing he had returned it.

Lisa Johnston, who called to cancel her account because she moving and was told “no problem.” Turned out it was a problem. Two years later when they tried to collect on 2 years of unpaid service.

Tim Davis got a bill for $82 after told he wouldn’t be charged and couldn’t get it taken off his bill until he produced a recording he made of the rep proving his claim.

Ryan Block shared a recording of his interaction with customer service when he called to cancel. It took 30 minutes and he had to ask to cancel his service dozens of times

Aaron Spain, who was put on hold for three hours, then told the department he was calling had already closed.

Lisa Brown opened her bill to find that her name had been changed to “Asshole Brown” after she called to drop service. Julie Swano had her name change to “Whore” and Carolina Heredia to “Dummy.” Mary Bauer’s bills showed up with “Super Bitch” stamped on them. All had called to complain or cancel services.

Betty told that when she called to cancel her cable service, she found out the service was in her husband’s name. Her husband had died. She was told only he could cancel the service. She eventually had to bring in a death certificate to prove he was dead.

The guy who needed internet service for his job and was told it would cost $60,000 to install — despite the fact that the cable company showed he had service at that location before buying the house and still shows it on the map or when he types in the address for service. He eventually sold his house because he couldn’t get the service.

And finally, the woman who claims the cable installer hung the cable too low, resulting in $8,000 worth of damage.

After all of the negative publicity, much of it “organic” on-line comments that went viral (like those above), Comcast — the nation’s largest cable company — publicly acknowledged poor customer service. In 2015, it agreed to hire 5,000 more techs and customer service reps to make things better.