Washington State Suing Comcast For “Deceptive” Service Protection Plans & Fees

Image courtesy of Matthew Keys

Accusing the nation’s largest cable company of “engaging in a pattern of deceptive practices” affecting nearly 500,000 people who signed up for a plan intended to cover most service calls, the Washington state attorney general’s office has filed suit against Comcast.

The complaint [PDF], filed this morning in a state court in King County, alleges 1.8 million violations of the Washington Consumer Protection Act, for practices involving the company’s Service Protection Plan (SPP).

The protection plan is intended as a way for customers to pay a little bit of money ($4.99/month) so that they don’t have to pay for service calls if/when there is a problem with their Comcast connection.

The plan promised “worry-free maintenance of all inside wiring for your cable TV, high-speed Internet and phone services.”

However, Washington state AG Bob Ferguson’s office claims that Comcast “grossly misrepresented” what the protection plan covers in an effort to induce customers to ante up for the plan.

“Contrary to Comcast’s claims that the SPP provides ‘comprehensive’ coverage, the SPP covers only a narrow scope of repairs,” reads the complaint. “For example, despite advertising to consumers that the SPP covers all ‘inside wiring,’ the SPP does not include wiring inside the walls of a residence,” even though that wiring constitutes most of the inside wiring in most customers’ homes.

Additionally, the state says that Comcast markets the SPP as covering all service calls related to customer-owned equipment, but the plan does not cover “any actual repairs relating to customer equipment. It simply covers the technician visiting the customer’s house and declaring that the customer’s equipment is broken.”

The state says Comcast failed to tell customers about these restrictions before signing them up for the SPP.

Comcast also marketed the SPP as covering outside equipment and wiring. Problem is: This service is already covered by Comcast regardless of whether or not the customer signs up for the SPP. Ferguson contends that this is deceptive marketing intended to get people to pay for the protection plan.

The complaint estimates that 500,000 Washington Comcast customers subscribed to the SPP over the last five years, resulting in around $73 million going to the cable giant.

“Comcast needs to pay that money back,” says Ferguson. “All the plan subscribers should get their money back.”

As mentioned above, Comcast’s Customer Guarantee is supposed to cover service visits for wiring and equipment outside the home. Also, anything involving a problem with Comcast-owned equipment inside the home is supposed to be covered. However, the complaint contends that thousands of Comcast customers in Washington were improperly charged for hardware and network issues that should have been covered by the guarantee.

In fact, notes the lawsuit, until June 2015, Comcast provided its service techs with a special code to add service charges to a normally not charged fix code.

“This code recognized that the service call was covered by the Customer Guarantee but charged the consumer anyway,” reads the complaint. “Technicians did not receive any training on proper application of this fix code, and no customer would intentionally refuse the Customer Guarantee.”

Ferguson estimates that Comcast made around $1 million from these allegedly bogus charges in the last few years.

The third allegation involves Comcast’s practice of allowing new customers to make a deposit — ranging from $50 to $150 — instead of having their credit checked. According to the complaint, Comcast accepted deposits from around 6,000 Washington customers — and then went ahead and checked their credit reports anyway. This sort of hard pull on a credit report can temporarily lower the consumer’s credit score.

In addition to the full restitution of the $73 million in SPP fees, and the $1 million in dubious service call charges, Ferguson is seeking to have remove the improper credit checks from the thousands of affected customers who paid to avoid a credit check.

Comcast could also be on the hook for upwards of $2,000 per violation of the state Consumer Protection Act.

“I refuse to allow Comcast to put its profits before people,” says Ferguson, who is asking the court to require that Comcast clearly disclose the limitations of the Service Protection Plan, correct the allegedly improper service codes, and implement a compliance procedure for improper customer credit checks.

UPDATE: Comcast has sent the following statement to Consumerist —
“The Service Protection Plan has given those Washington consumers who chose to purchase it great value by completely covering over 99% of their repair calls. We worked with the Attorney General’s office to address every issue they raised, and we made several improvements based on their input. Given that we were committed to continue working collaboratively with the Attorney General’s office, we’re surprised and disappointed that they have instead chosen litigation. We stand behind our products and services and will vigorously defend ourselves.”

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