Comcast Just Got Hit With a Record Fine

Comcast-fine

Comcast has agreed to pay the largest civil penalty the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ever assessed a cable operator to settle charges it billed consumers for equipment and services they never ordered.

I wrote a couple stories nearly two years ago about “drive-by” modem upgrades that Comcast was pushing on consumers around the country — complete with a box Comcast sent me despite my very public efforts to stop the firm.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one. And Comcast’s unwanted service “upgrades” weren’t limited to these modems, apparently. The FCC consent decree, released today, cites complaints from consumers about unwanted channels, hardware, you name it — and folks’ sometimes futile efforts to get refunds. This practice sometimes referred to as “negative option billing,” meaning corporations sign consumers up for things without their consent, unless the customers proactively stop it. It’s generally against the law.

“Some Customers alleged they specifically declined the new Products offered by Comcast but were nonetheless charged for the unrequested Product on their Bills, while others simply alleged that they had no knowledge of changes made to their accounts until they received an email notifying them that changes were made, they received new equipment in the mail, or after they read their Bills and saw the charges for new Products,” the FCC wrote in its order. “And, some Customers alleged that they were unable to obtain redress from Comcast without substantial time and effort, including allegedly long telephone wait times, allegedly unreturned calls from Comcast customer service representatives, allegedly unmet promises of refunds, alleged travel to local Comcast offices to return unrequested equipment, and hours allegedly spent disputing charges while pursuing refunds.”

The penalty amount is $2.3 million, but the agreement also requires Comcast change its business practices, to stop negative option selling and to make getting refunds easier.

“It is basic that a cable bill should include charges only for services and equipment ordered by the customer—nothing more and nothing less,” Travis LeBlanc, chief of the Enforcement Bureau, said. “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.”

Comcast, in a statement, said the FCC did not find any intentional wrongdoing, but only “isolated errors or consumer confusion.”

“We have been working very hard on improving the experience of our customers in all respects and are laser-focused on this. We acknowledge that, in the past, our customer service should have been better and our bills clearer, and that customers have at times been unnecessarily frustrated or confused. That’s why we had already put in place many improvements to do better for our customers even before the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau started this investigation almost two years ago. The changes the Bureau asked us to make were in most cases changes we had already committed to make, and many were already well underway or in our work plan to implement in the near future,” a Comcast spokesperson said in an email.

“We do not agree with the Bureau’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. We agree those issues should be fixed and are pleased to put this behind us and proceed with these customer service-enhancing changes.”

Meanwhile, you can file a complaint against Comcast, or any cable operator, on the FCC website.

[Editor’s Note: It’s important to remember that many service providers look at a version of your credit report when you subscribe to their services, so it’s a good idea to know where yours stands. You can see a free snapshot of your credit report, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.]

Image: RiverNorthPhotography

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A New Law Could Make Canceling Comcast as Easy as One Click

How to Avoid Wasting Thousands on a New Computer

Canceling your cable subscription can be easier said than done. Major providers generally require subscribers to call if they want to disconnect service, as this gives the sales agents an opportunity to talk the consumer out of their decision. (Listen to this viral phone call in which podcast host Ryan Block tries for eight minutes to cancel his Comcast subscription.) On top of that, many customers sign a contract that requires them to pay hefty early termination fees if they want to pull the plug before its end date.

California Assemblyman Mike Gatto proposed an in-state bill that could address the first hassle by requiring companies that allow online cable or internet subscriptions to also allow customers to cancel those services with just one click.

“It just makes sense, that if you are able to sign up for a service online, you should also be able to cancel it the same way,” Gatto said in a press release.

Gatto’s press release goes on to mention Block, who purportedly spent 18 minutes on the phone with a Comcast representative trying to cancel his service and arrange for return of his cable card.

Comcast declined to comment on the bill, citing that the proposal is not a Comcast-specific issue. It directed Credit.com to the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, which did not immediately respond with comment.

Paying for Cable

Gatto’s bill would have to pass before any change to the current system would be implemented — and, even then, it would be restricted to California.

If you currently feel you’re paying too much for your cable service, you can call your provider to see if they offer a “skinny” package, which is a slimmed-down list of channels for a lower price. You also might research prices of different cable packages in your area and then either switch your service or use the possibility of cancellation to broker a better deal with your current provider.

In either case, it could help to improve your credit beforehand, as providers generally offer lower rates and fees to people with good credit scores. You can see where you currently stand by viewing your two free credit scores, updated each month, on Credit.com. If your score is in rough shape, you can fix your credit by disputing any errors on your credit report, addressing your credit score killers and focus on maintaining smart spending habits, like making all payments on time.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: Ingram Publishing

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Here’s How Much Comcast Data Caps Cost One Customer Every Month

While Comcast moves ahead with its plan to add cell-phone-like data usage fees to home Internet service, consumers like Kimberly Richardson are feeling the pain. And if you are a heavy user and part of Comcast’s new fee trial, expect your bills to go up in January.

Richardson, who lives in Atlanta, regularly exceeds Comcast’s 300 GB usage cap. In July, she was charged $70 for overages. In August, $90. Meanwhile, warnings that her family is about to exceed its allotment seem to come earlier and earlier each month.

“Today, December 7th, I just got a notice that we have already used our 300 GB of data for the entire month of December!!!! What?? It’s only 7 days into the billing cycle!!!” she wrote to me recently. “This seems ridiculous since we have only been home TWO of these days!!! We will probably be billed an extra $100 to $140 in overage costs just for this month. I spoke with three different people, including management, and got no help.”

Even more frustrating, said Richardson: There’s no way to know if Comcast is accurately counting data usage. While Comcast offers some usage information on its website, it is sparse on details. “There is no data meter showing the hours of data usage or what was downloaded either, which is suspect. They only provide the totals of data, but this isn’t helpful or specific,” she said.

Comcast announced it was going to expand its existing trial of cap-and-charge-excess-fees back in September. (Trials in Richardson’s area had started earlier.) Not surprisingly, consumers strongly dislike the move. The website CutCableToday.com reported this week that 13,000 complaints related to the data caps were filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

Comcast sent notices in September that gave consumers a three-month courtesy period to get used to the caps. It expires in January.

When I contacted Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas to discuss Richardson’s complaint, he repeated what he told me in September — that 92% of users would not be impacted by the 300 GB limit. Customer service agents contacted Richardson and walked her through tools designed to help consumers understand their usage patterns, he said.

While Douglas said he couldn’t discuss Richardson’s account for privacy reasons, he said there are situations where family members use websites or applications that require a lot of data — even when they aren’t in the house — and families should have discussions about data usage. “We’ve created FAQs about our plans. We have a data usage calculator on our website so consumers can estimate how much data they’ll need,” he said. A data usage meter available to account holders shows a three-month history, he added.

When asked if Comcast plans to offer more granular tools for examining usage patterns — routinely offered with smartphones — Douglas said Comcast was taking feedback from customers on the issue. “People are learning how to manage data usage from their wireless experiences and we’ll continue to study it,” he said.

Richardson wasn’t happy with Comcast’s explanation, however. “Basically, nothing was resolved,” she said. “We have a better understanding on what could be using up our data each month, but there isn’t anything we can do about it. We weren’t able to get a refund on the data charges or regulate our data usage without getting rid of devices. We still don’t have any proof that we are actually using that amount of data, and there isn’t a specific data meter going forward telling us what we are using.”

Other consumers who chimed in on my original story about the caps have the same complaint. “I know for a fact that I have not used 300 GB,” wrote one. “I live with my two young children. On weekdays, they go to school and I go to work. We get home between 5:30 and 6:00. They are not allowed TV or electronic use during the week. They are gone out of the home every other weekend, and so am I. And yet when I asked for proof of this usage, I was not able to access such proof because it does not exist.”

UPDATE (12/17/15 at 5:15 ET): Comcast says it uses outside auditors to verify the accuracy of its usage metering technology. Consumers can read about the audits here.

Richardson did sign up for a new plan Comcast will offer in Atlanta starting in January. For an extra $35 each month, her family will once again enjoy unlimited data.

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