When Badr’s grandparents moved from one house to another in April 2018, they had one simple request for Comcast—they wanted the cable company to transfer their Internet-only plan to the new address, with no changes to the service or price.
Badr, who helps manage his grandparents’ account, thought everything had gone smoothly. “We asked to move the exact same service we had in place—just Internet. The customer service rep sent us a text message to confirm, and we confirmed,” he told Ars via email.
Badr’s grandparents’ Internet service was transferred to the new house in Orland Park, Illinois, and the bill remained roughly the same at about $53 a month, at least for a while, he told Ars. It wasn’t until much later that he realized what actually happened. The Comcast rep had “matched the old bill on the monthly cost” but added a streaming TV service that his grandparents didn’t request and never used. The TV service was essentially free for the first year under the promotional deal that the Comcast rep applied to the account, but after the year was up the bill doubled, Badr said. The overcharges continued unnoticed and eventually added up to more than $600.
“The billing was set up on autopay,” Badr said. “On the credit card statement, the Comcast charges were coming through to roughly $53 a month, as expected” until the price increase took effect.
Mahmoud, 87, and Blanca, 73, didn’t even realize they had Comcast TV service, Badr told us. Comcast never sent them a cable TV box because they were provided with Xfinity Instant TV, a cable streaming service that works on smartphones, computers, and other Internet-connected devices, rather than Comcast’s traditional TV plan. Mahmoud and Blanca have satellite TV service and use Comcast only for broadband access.
But the TV service had been applied to their account, and the price hike happened in the bill for April 2019, which was $99.95. The price subsequently rose to $107.92 a month. The TV-related charges included the basic streaming plan, add-on channels Starz, Showtime, and Cinemax, and fees including a $10-per-month Broadcast TV fee.
Comcast denied refund until contacted by Ars
Badr didn’t notice the monthly price had doubled until February 2020 when he happened to be reviewing bills. That’s when he discovered his grandparents had been overcharged for nearly a year, with the extra money flowing to Comcast via automatic payments. Badr then contacted Comcast and went through a customer-service experience that’s familiar to many cable users.
He told Ars:
We never authorized this—we never asked for anything other than to move our existing service without any changes. The rest is pretty much what you’d expect from Comcast. Several phone calls to customer service, over one hour of phone calls, promises of an investigation, a bogus ticket number, and no follow-up calls. When I followed up with them after 1.5 weeks, I was told that this is what we agreed to and there’s no recourse. I reached out via Twitter, too, with the same outcome. In all, my grandparents are out $600+ for nothing more than asking to keep their existing service running. It’s a trap. It’s deception, and it’s unethical behavior. I also opened a case with the Illinois attorney general, but I know that this type of behavior doesn’t get fixed without a lot of bad PR.
As Badr suspected, Comcast didn’t provide any relief until facing the possibility of bad publicity. After reviewing the bills and information Badr provided Ars, we contacted Comcast public relations in mid-March. We provided Comcast with all the details Badr gave us; we also asked why TV service was added to the account and whether Comcast has any evidence that the family requested or ever used the TV plan.
A week later, a Comcast spokesperson provided Ars with a short response: “Our customer care agents will be getting in touch with the customer, as they would with any customer service issue that is brought to our attention.”
At that point, Comcast still hadn’t provided any refund. But that changed in less than a week. “Comcast reached out yesterday and agreed to refund $488,” Badr told Ars on March 25. “They initially tried for $230, then re-read the bills and raised the amount.”
While that accounts for most of the overcharges, Badr’s grandparents are still out a bit of money. Badr said he calculated the overcharges to be “$612.15 or $647.95 if I factor in FCC fees and taxes associated with the extras [the unwanted TV service].” Badr followed up with Comcast again to get an explanation for why the company refunded $488 but not the full amount. He didn’t get an answer, he said.
Comcast misbehavior (partially) reined in by states
As Ars readers know well, Badr and his grandparents are far from alone in having bad billing experiences with Comcast. Comcast, the largest cable provider in the United States, has low customer-service scores even by the standards of cable TV, which is the lowest-rated industry in the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s ratings.
In November 2018, Comcast agreed to pay $700,000 in refunds and cancel debts for more than 20,000 customers to settle allegations from the Massachusetts attorney general that it used deceptive advertising to promote long-term cable contracts. Massachusetts officials alleged that Comcast violated state consumer protection laws by “fail[ing] to adequately disclose the actual monthly price and terms of its long-term contracts for cable services, including failing to disclose to customers that the company could increase the price of certain monthly fees at any point during the long-term contracts.”
In June 2019, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that Comcast violated Washington state consumer protection law “more than 445,000 times when it charged tens of thousands of Washingtonians for its Service Protection Plan without their consent.” Comcast was ordered to refund nearly 50,000 customers and pay a $9.1 million fine.
In January 2020, Comcast agreed to issue refunds in Minnesota to 15,600 customers and cancel the debts of another 16,000 people to settle allegations that it lied to customers in order to hide the true cost of service. In that case, the Minnesota attorney general’s office found that Comcast “charged Minnesota consumers more than it promised it would for their cable services, including undisclosed ‘fees’ that the company used to bolster its profits, and that it charged for services and equipment that customers did not request.”
Strength in numbers
Customer complaints to state attorneys general occasionally lead to settlements like the three we just listed. But that generally only happens when Comcast overcharges large numbers of customers in the same way. When a billing problem affects one or a few people but isn’t repeated across thousands of accounts, customers are usually on their own while they try to convince Comcast to issue a refund. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission under Chairman Ajit Pai eliminated rules that required ISPs to be more transparent with customers about hidden fees—Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler, forced Comcast to pay $2.3 million in October 2016 “to resolve an investigation into whether the company wrongfully charged cable TV customers for services and equipment that those customers never authorized.”
“I went down every possible avenue with them to no avail,” Badr told us while describing the Comcast customer-service response that eventually led him to contact Ars. “As happy as I am at the resolution, I’m still peeved that it required this level of involvement to correct an obvious mistake.”