By Adam R Jacobson
RBR + TVBR
The FCC on Tuesday (Oct. 11) handed Comcast Corp. a record-setting $2.3 million fine to settle a series of customer complaints that they were charged for services or equipment they never authorized.
At issue is the widespread use of so-called “negative option billing,” it is equivalent to the illegal practice known as “cramming” (the unauthorized placement of charges on telephone bills). In place for over 20 years, the negative option billing prohibition has been interpreted and enforced as a customer service rule. As stated in the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, the FCC as well as state and local governments have jurisdiction to regulate cable operators’ negative option billing practices.
The Commission received numerous complaints from consumers alleging that Comcast imposed charges for equipment and services that customers did not order. Although the specific details vary, many complaints allege that Comcast added services or equipment to subscribers’ cable service without their knowledge or permission.
The FCC shared several of the customer complaints it received, and it paints a picture of a hapless customer service department that did exactly what Comcast subscribers didn’t ask for.
SUBSCRIBER A: LATINO PACK PROBLEMS
On August 5, 2015, “Subscriber A,” a Florida resident, filed a complaint with the Commission one day after calling Comcast’s automated bill payment line and was informed she owed more than $300.
According to Subscriber A, she had been receiving the same services from Comcast — digital starter cable service and essential Internet access service — in her more than nine years as a subscriber. The only change, she stated, was the addition of the Xfinity TV Latino service, priced at $9.99 per month, in May 2015.
After the call, Subscriber A wrote that she logged into her Comcast account and “noticed that my bill showed services that I did not have. . . . [an] Xfinity 3450 Latino Triple Play Bundle with a two-year agreement” that “includes voice service with international calling.”
She also alleged that she was being charged for “equipment that was mailed to me according to the Comcast bill.”
Subscriber A claimed that she then called Comcast to ask for an explanation; the service representative allegedly stated that the changes to her account were made on July 18, but he was unable to say how or why the changes occurred. The representative reportedly told Subscriber A to call the billing department as they alone could add or remove services from her account. Subscriber A claimed she then requested to speak with a supervisor, but was informed that none were available:
“I was told that all supervisors were on a call and that my name can be added to a list and someone would call me back within 48 hours. I said no that I would hold and I was told I that I was not able to wait on the line. The process was for him to provide me with the telephone number and for me to call because he’s transfer bottom was not working, by now I have been on the phone for almost an hour. I insisted on staying on the line and the representative told me that he was going to hang up on me.”
Subscriber A stated that she then called the billing department and, after a 15-minute wait, informed another representative of her account issues:
“After placing me on hold a couple of times he was not able to find a reason for the changes. He stated that he had reviewed a system where the customer voice are recorded consenting to any changes to their accounts, and there was not recording or calls from me in their system requesting any upgrades or changes to my account.”
Subscriber A was then reportedly transferred to the resolution team due to the billing department representative’s inability to alter her account:
“The person that I spoke to in this department was sarcastic had not customer service skills, show no empathy for my situation. She had the nerve to ask me if I enjoyed the new service, I was so upset at this question that I asked her how was I suppose to enjoy something I didn’t even know I had her answer was that I should’ve known.”
According to Subscriber A, the resolution team representative was also unable to resolve her account issues:
“[The customer service representative] offered to changed back my account but was not able to help me with the internet service I had to contact a different department to help me with that. She did not know why the changes were made and didn’t really care. I requested to speak to a supervisor and I was told that there was no supervisor available until Thursday. I requested to have my service change back to what I had and to have my service cancel, I was told the she was only allow one transaction per day. After spending over 3 hours on the phone with [the customer service representative] from the Customer resolution team transferred me to a fax machine.”
OTHER SUBSCRIBERS OVERBILLED
The FCC shared other instances of Comcast’s unauthorized billing.
On August 8, 2015, “Subscriber B,” a Colorado resident, filed a complaint with the Commission claiming that Comcast had wrongfully billed him for an extra cable box for more than two-and-a-half years. According to Subscriber B, he located the extra charge after 18 months had passed, and repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a refund over the course of the following year:
“For the last year after I noticed the overcharge, I have been regularly calling to ask them to fix it they have not fixed it they have been putting it off and putting it off and putting it off. Then finally I told two weeks ago that their computers only go back six months. I went to the service center they told me the same thing so for a long time they put me off and said they were working on it and going to fix the problem just to have me wait long enough that they can only go back six months and they don’t have to ever pay me back therefore I have a large outstanding bill that I owe them and was told it would be looked into. I feel completely taken advantage of! I do not want to lay what I now owe because of the 2+ years I have been overcharged (through no fault of my own). The bills are so confusing the extra charge was hard to find. Please help. I have spent close to 15 hours on the phone with Comcast and now close to five hours in person.”
On June 10, 2015, Subscriber C, a Florida resident, filed a complaint with the Commission claiming that he was charged for a pay-per-view boxing match that he never ordered. According to Subscriber C, he informed a Comcast representative of this and was told that a one-time courtesy refund would be applied. Apparently, the credit was denied and the refund was never applied, compelling Subscriber C’s wife to spend over two hours on the phone with a customer service representative “who cannot transfer us to a supervisor.”
On July 20, 2015, Subscriber D, a Florida resident, filed a complaint with the Commission. Subscriber D alleged that although he had been a Comcast customer for only three months, the bill was “always wrong” with “services added I didn’t order, contract price change without my consent.” Subscriber D stated that “when I call to fix they give me credits to fix, so I pay bill and next month there is money owed from previous bill. and when I call on that the notes for credits are mysteriously gone.”
On June 11, 2014, Subscriber E, a District of Columbia resident, filed a complaint with the Commission, which stated:
“I have been being charged for Showtime by Comcast for over a year despite the fact that I never asked for it, and can’t even access it! When I called in to inquire and have the charges removed, I was told they would only go back 6 months! I explained to them that I never asked for it not did I or could I use it and they still refused to refund me for all the months I’ve paid for it! I explained to them that it went unnoticed simply because I open the bill, look at the amount, pay it and trash it!”
The FCC subsequently launched an investigation, and Comcast cooperated. This led to the Oct. 11 civil penalty and consent decree — the largest ever served to a cable TV operator by the FCC.