Comcast Fined $2.3 Million For Charging Customers For Equipment, Services They Never Ordered

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Comcast has agreed to pay a $2.3 million fine to the Federal Communications Commission to settle an investigation into allegations that the cable colossus charged customers for services and equipment they never ordered.

Federal law prohibits cable companies from the practice of so-called “negative option billing,” meaning Comcast and its ilk can not charge a subscriber for any service or equipment that the subscriber “has not affirmatively requested by name.”

The law further clarifies that “a subscriber’s failure to refuse a cable operator’s proposal to provide such service or equipment shall not be deemed to be an affirmative request for such service or equipment.” So just because the customer hasn’t explicitly said “no” doesn’t turn it into a “yes.”

And yet Comcast customers complained to the FCC that they were being hit with sometimes significant charges for things they never ordered.

Like one Florida Comcast customer who was suddenly slammed with a bill for more than $300. For years before this charge, she’d had a very basic cable package and lower-tier internet service from Comcast. Then in May 2015 she added a $10/month TV Latino service. What she didn’t know until it was too late is that she’d somehow been enrolled in an “Xfinity 3450 Latino triple play Bundle with a two year agreement” that included voice service with international calling. Additionally, this subscriber says Comcast charged her for new equipment that was supposedly mailed to her.

Comcast customer service was unhelpful, telling this customer that their records indicated she had ordered these services, and that she needed to call the billing department. After the typical Kafkaesque cable bureaucracy — no supervisors available; “give us your number and someone will call you back”; spending too much time on hold — she says she eventually got through to someone who could not find any explanation for these changes.

She was passed on to a resolution specialist who, according to the customer, “had the nerve to ask me if I enjoyed the new service… I asked her how was I suppose to enjoy something I didn’t even know I had.”

Another Comcast customer, this one from Colorado, told the FCC that for more than two years the cable company repeatedly billed him for a cable box he didn’t have.

“For the last year after I noticed the overcharge, I have been regularly calling to ask them to fix it,” writes the subscriber, who says Comcast time and again refused to do anything. “Then finally I [was] told two weeks ago that their computers only go back six months.”

Then there was the customer who was charged for a pay-per-view boxing match they never ordered, the D.C. resident who was billed for Showtime despite never ordering it or even being able to watch the channel, and others.

After seeing a possible pattern of systemic ineptitude at Comcast, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau began investigating the company’s compliance with the prohibition against negative option billing. Today’s consent decree [PDF] puts an end to this particular investigation.

In addition to paying the $2.3 million fine, Comcast mustdevelop and implement a five-year compliance plan, including:

• Designing procedures to obtain customers’ affirmative consent before charging them for new services or equipment;

• Sending customers an order confirmation, separate from their regular bill, that clearly and conspicuously describes the newly added services and equipment and any associated charges;

• Offering free tools that allow customers to block the addition of new services or equipment to their accounts;

• Implement a detailed program for dealing with disputed charges in a standardized and expedient fashion;

• Not referring an account to collections or suspending service while a disputed charge is being investigated;

• Training Comcast employees to ensure customer service personnel resolve customer complaints about unauthorized charges.

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

When reached for comment, Comcast HQ acknowledged the settlement but maintained that the FCC failed to turn up evidence of problematic policies or intentional wrongdoing. Instead, Comcast — which says it is “laser-focused” on improving customer service — described the stories uncovered by the FCC investigation as instances of “isolated errors or customer confusion.”

“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,” reads the statement. “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.”

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