Ask Stacy: Can DirecTV Charge for Something I Didn’t Order?

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In this week’s question, we tackle a charge from DirecTV for NFL Sunday Ticket. It’s a question that highlights the frustration people so often feel when it comes to their cable or satellite company. Here’s the letter:

I just received my bill from DirecTV. They added a charge for $37.49 for the NFL Sunday Ticket that we did not order. After reading further, I found out they automatically added the charge and it’s now up to me to cancel it “before the season starts” if I don’t want it.

Is this legal? I am so steamed that they did this that I am looking at other services now. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people who don’t catch this dirty trick and end up paying for things they never wanted in the first place. What’s your opinion? — Michelle

After reading Michelle’s question, the first thing I did was send an email with her complaint to the media relations department of DirecTV. While waiting for a response, I went online to see if other consumers had reported similar experiences. Here’s some of what I found:

From MyThreeCents.com, February 2013:

DirecTV “gave” us an NFL package for a few months without consent. The scam is it comes with an auto renewal. We never used it because we didn’t even know we had it. DirecTV then added the NFL package to our plan without our consent and started charging us $33 extra every month.

From Consumerist, May 2012:

Just received my latest electronic statement which noted (DirecTV will) auto-renew me for their NFL Sunday Ticket 2012, at a total of $198. Logged into their site to have it removed; can’t do so online. Called their 800 number to have it removed; told that I can’t until the third week of June.

Michelle didn’t say in her original email if she’d paid for NFL Sunday Ticket in the past and was auto-renewed. When I asked her via email, she admitted she had, but added, “Even if we DID have it last year, it still shouldn’t be automatically renewed! It just seems underhanded and sneaky and a pathetic way to get more money out of people who aren’t paying attention.”

Here’s what DirecTV said:

NFL Sunday Ticket customers are automatically renewed each season at the lowest price and are notified on their bill statement of the renewal a month in advance of the first bill (the first of six payments that begin in June). Customers have the opportunity to cancel anytime before kickoff in September and receive a refund of any money paid. The auto renew process has been in place for several years and is popular with millions of customers who like the convenience of being auto renewed at the best price.

So what have we learned? Something anyone who has dealt with virtually any satellite or cable company has known for years: It can be a frustrating and expensive experience.

Here’s what Michelle should do

Companies like DirecTV, Comcast and others have a dirty little secret: They’re not really needed for TV anymore. So what Michelle, and you, should do when you’re sick of the hassle and expense of these outdated services is just say no.

Start by checking out the following video, then reading on for specifics.

Now, here’s a three-step process to radically reduce, or even eliminate, the high cost of TV.

Step 1: Take note of what you watch and see what’s available

Before you buy or cut anything, start paying attention to what channels and programs you watch. Once you know that, see where else you can get them.

  • Broadcast. You can snatch many stations out of the air with an antenna. But before you buy one, use AntennaWeb to get an idea of the channels available at your address and the best place to put an antenna. TV stations are now all-digital, meaning you’ll either get a channel or you won’t — no static or fuzzy pictures.
  • Program websites. Some shows host episodes on their own websites. If your favorite program doesn’t, check the network sites. For example, ABC posts episodes of many of its popular programs.
  • Video services. Sites like Hulu and Netflix carry a wide variety of current and past programs. Some shows on Hulu are free to watch from your computer; others may require an $8-a-month Hulu Plus subscription. Netflix has a streaming subscription rate of $8 a month as well. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you already have access to a large library of movies and TV shows at no extra cost.
  • Sports. If you get Internet from one of these companies, you get ESPN3 for free. This broadcast network doesn’t stream everything, but does offer “thousands of live games and events” every year including college sports and major tournaments, with real-time stats and scoreboards. There’s also subscriptions like MLB.tv, but you might be better off at the local sports bar because membership for a season runs about $80.
  • Premium cable shows. You can usually get episodes of shows from premium movie channels like HBO a couple of days after they air for a buck or two each on Amazon and iTunes. But you can save a lot more by waiting for the season to come out, then streaming it on Netflix or ordering the DVDs with a separate $8-a-month subscription.

If you find you have shows you can’t get via any of these methods and can’t live without, you’ll have to ask yourself: Are they worth paying $1,000 a year for? Are they worth the verbal wrestling match that seems to occur with every call to your cable or satellite provider?

Step 2: Get the hookup

If you want to watch shows on your TV instead of your computer, you’ll need to either connect your computer to your TV, or get something designed to stream from the Internet to your TV. Examples include Roku ($60 to $90) and Boxee Box ($180). Google is coming out with its own simple streaming device for a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $35 on Aug. 7. You’ll find it at Amazon.

A PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii also have streaming capabilities for services like Hulu and Netflix. An Xbox 360 requires a Live Gold subscription ($8 to $10 a month), while PlayStation and Wii charge nothing extra.

Step 3: Check and cancel

Once you’re set up and satisfied, you get to take the fun step: Call your satellite or cable company and cancel that frustrating and expensive service.

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here. The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer. Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

We welcome your opinions, but let’s keep it civil. Like many businesses, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. In our case, that means those who communicate by name-calling, racism, using words designed to hurt others or generally acting like an uninformed bully. Also, comments that include links to email addresses or commercial websites typically aren't posted. This isn't a place to advertise your business.

  • Boogieboard

    ESPN 3 is provided to customers of select TELEVISION PROVIDERS, not Internet providers as the article incorrectly states.

  • Rebecca

    DirecTV did the same to me but with premium channel subscription. they “gave” me 3 months free then automatically added the charge to our account. Their bread n butter is people who don’t pay attention to their bill. Sick way of feeding off their customers.

  • cybrarian_ca

    This happened in Canada years ago. Cable companies signed everyone up for expensive services, & tried to force them to “opt out”, hoping most wouldn’t. Public uproar was instant and HUGE. two days later, they backed off. Another company tried to do something similar to me once. I demanded to cancel, & they tried to say I couldn’t, that I had agreed to a 3 month trial, by not protesting within the first ten days – before I even got a bill or knew! I threatened to sue, wrote the VP of customer service, told them I would email every list I could find telling tens of thousands of people about their thievery, & never paid. they backed off immediately & cancelled the service. Sometimes, he word “lawyer” works wonders.

  • R Ch

    “It just seems underhanded and sneaky and a pathetic way to get more money out of people who aren’t paying attention.”

    Yes, Michelle, it does seem sneaky…which is all the more reason to read the fine print because in most cases (no, not all, but in most) the automatic renewal is somewhere in the agreement most of us only glance at before clicking the “I Agree” icon.

    Most large organizations will not go out of their way to protect the customer, so it’s up to the customer to read and understand any agreements (especially the online variety) before accepting.

    Bottom line for all consumers (not picking on Michelle): Pay attention or pay for charges you didn’t know about when you signed up.

  • BigDog40

    Just blame public education. Kids are taught from day one to follow the leader [Sheep to slaughter] and don’t even bother to learn to read or write.

  • Sandy

    We are use to nickel and dimeing us, but now its five and ten dollars, scam scam scam and it will never end

  • general69

    Cant we get help from the F.C.C?

  • Jeff Danielson

    This is a long term practice started many, many years ago in the magazine industry Any time you are given a free trial of a product and you don’t cancel before the end of the free trial it will automatically renew. Now with the computerized billing systems most companies use this policy is everywhere. I had an experience with a water delivery service where they gave me 5 – 5 gallon jugs of water to start with. This was a weekly service. So as I wasn’t paying attention, started getting 5 jugs every week at $ 7.00 a jug. I was using one. By the time I git it straightened out I had 25 jugs in my house. Because I hadn’t modified the original trial offer, to order as needed, I was stuck . When I tried to cancel I found that the original trial had converted, again I didn’t change the original deal,to an annual contract and to cancel before the year was up there would be a $250.00 penalty.

  • Bent Ears Audio Laboratories

    Paying for TV? People still pay for TV? WHY??? What with Roku all the other new internet-enables set top devices… and the extremely high picture quality offered by digital over the air broadcasting,

  • Bent Ears Audio Laboratories

    Paying for TV? People still pay for TV?? WHY??? What with all the internet-enabled devices like Google’s new widget and set top devices like Roku and others which has already been around for almost 10 years, AND the incredible picture quality achievable from digital over the air broadcasting, I’m shocked that anyone actually still pays those highway robbers masquerading as “entertainment providers” FOR ANYTHING. My family cut the cord in 2005 and haven’t missed the hundreds of hours of extra commercials – uhh sorry the shows we used to consider so important. Between the computer, the antenna and the our local library’s immense DVD collection, there’s not a single reason for us to ever pay for TV again.

  • Kit Wilson

    Everybody (or so it seems) does renewals like this. If you are lucky, you will get a notice that your subscription is up for renewal–then the company automatically renews it. Its hands free–or brain free.

    I was offered a free trial on my cable, and thought why not. When I decided to not continue it, before the trial was up–they charged me a 5 dollar “change fee.” I will never take advantage of a free additional service again. (I did get the fee waived). (As to why pay–there are some things, especially on PBS, that will never be on DVD or streamed past a couple of days. When you live in the near boondocks, I also don’t get PBS with an antenna).

  • Crystal Zoblisien

    Okay, so what happens when you are automatically billed online because you signed up for paperless billing? We never got any communication on this happening. No emails, no text messages, no smoke signals. Nothing. Nada. And no one told us the year before or this year that it was automatic. This is super shady and they are going to wind up getting sued over it.