FCC Dings Comcast for Bullying Cable Customers

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

You might recall a series of stories I wrote 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 Herculean, and very public, efforts to stop the firm.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one. At the time, I reported widespread frustration over the modems being sent around the country, and how they fit into Comcast’s larger plan to turn us all into hotspots (and have us pay for it!).

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 is sometimes referred to as “negative option billing,” meaning corporations sign consumers up for things without their consent unless the customers proactively move to 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.”

Penalty is small change, but Comcast vows practices will change

The penalty is a start. The amount is $2.3 million, and it’s hard to see how that serves as a deterrent to a company like Comcast. But the agreement also requires Comcast to change its business practices, to stop negative option selling, and to make getting refunds easier. We’ll see. Failing to honor a consent order theoretically brings with it bigger legal headaches, so hopefully Comcast will change its ways.

“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.”

Comcast, in a statement, said the FCC did not find any intentional wrongdoing, but only “isolated errors or consumer confusion.” Here’s is their statement in full:

“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,” Comcast said in an email to me.

“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.

What experience have you had with Comcast? Share your thoughts in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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