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Businesses Communications Government United States Politics

Senators Blast Comcast, Other Cable Firms For "Unfair Billing Practices" (arstechnica.com) 176

An anonymous reader writes: Six Democratic US senators [Wednesday] criticized Comcast and other TV and broadband providers for charging erroneous fees, such as cable modem rental fees billed to customers who bought their own modems. The senators have written a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler asking the commission to 'stop unfair billing practices.'.....Last year, more than 30 percent of complaints to the FCC about Internet service and 38 percent of complaints about TV service were about billing...
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Senators Blast Comcast, Other Cable Firms For "Unfair Billing Practices"

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  • Bernie Sanders (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    For PRESIDENT 2016.

  • by houghi ( 78078 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:16AM (#51438081)

    It is election time. So they say something that sounds nice to voters. Nothing will change. Even if they put up a bill, it will be changes so much that it will be law to do what they are doing.

    This is great, as they can always blame the other party. Both parties are guilty here.

    Let's be honest,the political game is lost to the companies for a long time now. They are able to fool enough of the people all of the time.

    I mean, even Sanders said that even if he got elected it might already be to late.

    There is a reason for separation between church and state. That is that a certain group might get influence over a majority that might think differently and only that groups interest will be looked at and not that of all. The same must happen with corporations. There must be a separation between business and state (and business and church, but that was covered 2000 years ago). Only then will there be a governement for the people by the people.

    Until then: I do welcome my old business overlords.

    • "It is election time. So they say something that sounds nice to voters"

      It's like those hearings they have regularly on pharma prices. A string of witnesses gets to express dudgeon, but nothing ever actually happens. So eventually they will schedule another hearing.

    • by CeasedCaring ( 1527717 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @10:11AM (#51438405)

      "It is election time. So they say something that sounds nice to voters. Nothing will change."

      The 3 laws of political campaigning:-

      1: Promise EVERYTHING
      2: Deliver NOTHING
      3: Blame the other lot

      and most important of all:-

      0: Don't get caught!

    • by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @10:51AM (#51438661)
      You're certainly welcome to be cynical, but let's take a look at the list of names here:

      Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

      Several of these people have been talking about internet and technology issues for some time, and rather astutely (the Oregon senators), or have taken a very pro-consumer stance against abuse by corporations (Warren, Sanders). None of them are none for being shills or fair-weather friends on this sort of thing, and they've proven more than willing to put action and effort behind their words.

      Now if you really want to be cynical, bemoan the fact that they don't have enough power at present to accomplish anything versus the majority of (mostly Republican, though not all) legislators who are all too happy to suck up to Comcast/etc and proclaim idiotic things like "Net Neutrality hurts competition" or ranting about how Title II will stifle innovation when we're already getting left in the dust on connection speed by most of the developed world.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)...

        None of them are [known] for being shills or fair-weather friends on this sort of thing, and they've proven more than willing to put action and effort behind their words.

        Unfortunately, you're wrong here. All 6 of the Senators you named pushed the FCC ON BEHALF OF COMCAST to have the FCC implement Title II on Comcast's competitors. (Comcast agreed to hinder itself with the Title II restrictions as a condition of their purchase of NBC, then promptly started lobbying to have the restrictions added to the other cable companies as well.)

        The Title II plan, which all 6 of these guys support, ISN'T a pay-to-play ban (and thus isn't Net Neutrality), but instead mandates settlement

    • Even if they put up a bill, it will be changes so much that it will be law to do what they are doing.

      Why do they need to pass any new laws to address billing errors? If your cable company is billing you for a service or product that you didn't receive, isn't that just straight up theft? Existing laws already handle this situation.

      • Well it would actually take a state Attorney General or someone like that to actually prosecute that case. Given that it likely crosses state lines you may need the US Attorney General to handle it.
        • If you want to see them sent to prison, sure (not that it wouldn't be amusing to see). If all you care about is getting your money back, small claims court might be a good place to start.
          • Why not both. Tying them up in small claims with bunches of small civil cases and having the various state AGs putting the screws to them on the criminal side. Maybe then they will quit being royal fuck-ups.
    • No, no it isn't. (Score:5, Informative)

      by stomv ( 80392 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @02:36PM (#51440419) Homepage

      It is election time.

      No it isn't, at least not generally. There are six senators that signed on:

      • * Bernie Sanders -- running for President now; up for reelection to the US Senate in November 2018.
      • * Ron Wyden -- up for reelection to the US Senate in November 2016.
      • * Jeff Merkley -- up for reelection to the US Senate in November 2020.
      • * Liz Warren -- up for reelection to the US Senate in November 2018.
      • * Ed Markey -- up for reelection to the US Senate in November 2020.
      • * Al Franken -- up for reelection to the US Senate in November 2020.

      Giving Bernie a "0 months until election" that is still an average of three years until these six are up for reelection. It's not election time.

      I get that you just don't trust the US elected politicians to do the work of the people. Fine. Feel that way. But don't spew factually inaccurate nonsense because you're either too ignorant of federal elections or too lazy to look it up. Perhaps a bit more civic engagement on your part might help prevent the old business overlords, hm?

      • by dryeo ( 100693 )

        You don't have political parties that help members of their party get [re]-elected in the States?

  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:19AM (#51438097) Homepage

    38 percent of complaints about TV service were about billing...

    Cue the creepy movie tension music!

    "It Came From The Billing Department 2: The Revenge Of Accounts Receivable"

  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:29AM (#51438143)

    Canal O'Rourke lost his job for trying to report comcast about billing errors.

    I say go for it and if it comes down to it. No easy time for the big shots.

  • Consumerist stories about Comcast [consumerist.com].

    One of the stories: Comcast: 2014 worst company in America [consumerist.com].
  • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:32AM (#51438161)

    I've been getting involved with the local government to get fiber to the area and the cable companies keep pushing back "Nah, you don't want that speed". To the point that it's hurting local businesses. Local fiber co-ops and companies are starting up across the state (slowly). The cities that still had municipal power & water mostly have fiber already.

    They're not going to be able to keep up with the competition springing up across the country.

    More and more people are cutting the cord as well. They could have taken a bit less of a profit and maintained their lead but they decided to double down on

    • by oneiros27 ( 46144 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @10:28AM (#51438501) Homepage

      Comcast was dragging their feet in upgrading our community to fibre, telling us it was going to be years off.

      As soon as our town (Upper Marlboro, MD) passed an ordinance granting Verizon a franchise agreement, Comcast suddenly had crews out upgrading. Maybe it was a month or so delay ... whatever it was, they did everything they could to try to get their stuff installed before AT&T could. (and they were shutting down town roads without going through the proper procedures ... so residents were pissed off)

      Comcast will do everything that they can to make sure that they have no competition -- even pushing for state laws to ban municipalities from installing their own ... but as soon as it's inevitable that there's going to be competition, they'll do everything that they can to make sure that they keep the customers (and thus, make it less profitable for whoever new comes in).

  • So (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:32AM (#51438163) Journal
    Among the little people and the petty criminals; 'invoice fraud' is a classic. You just pump out a whole bunch of reasonably plausible looking invoices for suitably generic goods or services, and hope that some of the recipients pay without checking too closely. Illegal, of course. Exactly how much 'unfair billing' and how many 'errors'(mysteriously in your favor much more often than not) do you have to accrue before people stop cringing and call your practices what they are, when not pulled by giant oligopolies?
    • Among the little people and the petty criminals; 'invoice fraud' is a classic.

      To hark back to a Tom Cruise film The Frim: 'It's mail fraud'.

      No, it's not sexy, but it should be used to nail their corporate nuts to their corporate foreheads.

  • $6000 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by EzInKy ( 115248 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:33AM (#51438171)

    That's how much I saved cutting the cord five years ago. Still can't believe I was one of the idiots paying $12,000 a decade to watch TV.

  • by jfdavis668 ( 1414919 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:41AM (#51438209)
    I had to return my parents Comcast equipment when we sold their house. I took it to the local Comcast office. I was stunned by the level of security. Inch thick bulletproof glass. You couldn't even touch the workers, everything had to be passed through lock boxes which would only open on one side at a time. I personally live in a rural area. The local cable company is located in a converted ranch house. You can walk in and talk to them at any time. Just a counter you can step around, not even a door in the way. If Comcast needs that level of security to protect the workers, it must be one of the most hated companies around.
    • by Zak3056 ( 69287 )

      The reason for the security is that it's a payment center. Think tens of thousands in cash on hand, with a LOT less of a law enforcement response than if you rob the local bank.

      • This place has 10 times more security than any local bank. I don't think they have that much cash on hand.
        • by Zak3056 ( 69287 )

          It adds up quick. If 100 people paid their bill in an average day, and the average bill is $100, that's $10k. Some people are past due, some have higher bills, and some offices do more business than that, so...

          With regard to more security than a bank, I believe it. You rob a bank, the feds get involved. You rob the cable company, it's like robbing a liquor store. Take a look at the average check cashing place some day.

      • The reason for the security is that it's a payment center. Think tens of thousands in cash on hand, with a LOT less of a law enforcement response than if you rob the local bank.

        There's lots of places that deal with a lot more money with less security. E.g. Walmart, casinos, et . And those places are a lot more likely to deal in cash and with a lot more people than a cable tv provider where most people mail their checks in.

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        No. When I go to a main branch of my bank downtown, they have a LOT more money out in the tills and are a much bigger target (think hundreds of thousands in cash and being a bank it they can't just run it to the bank mid-day). They have just high counters and one security guard who looks to be in his late '60s. No Plexiglas.

        Comcast has the security measures because their customer service is terrible enough to inspire violence in regular everyday people (there have been incidents).

        • Comcast has the security measures because their customer service is terrible enough to inspire violence in regular everyday people (there have been incidents).

          Nah it's OSHA required due to potential work-place violence, they don't care about a few service 'droids, but an OSHA fine involves money.

    • You have a local Comcast office?

  • Happened to me (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Not-a-Neg ( 743469 ) * on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:42AM (#51438215)

    I bought my own cable modem, had been using it for over a year when I finally decided to return Comcast's modem. Took it down to their local office and had the customer service rep. check the modem back into inventory and remove the rental fee from my account before leaving. The first month after having it removed everything was fine, there was no rental fee billed, the 2nd month after it re-appeared on my bill and they tacked on an extra charge for the prior month as well as sent a separate mailing notice to inform me they had noticed there was no rental fee on my account and it must have been a billing error on their part but not to worry as they weren't going to charge a penalty, just 2 months worth of rental fees. In order to have the issue resolved I had to call customer service and have them "open an investigation" to check with the local office to verify they had received my old modem back.

    • Yes, it was clearly the local office's fault for not entering it into their system that you weren't supposed to get a rental fee...

      Except that obviously wasn't the problem, because they did put it into the system, which is why you didn't get charged for the first month. I had similar problems with Time Warner Cable when I bought my own modem. Every once in a while, the fee would get tacked back on and I'd have to call in and complain to get the charge removed. This only makes sense if they have someone

    • I bought my own cable modem, had been using it for over a year when I finally decided to return Comcast's modem. Took it down to their local office and had the customer service rep. check the modem back into inventory and remove the rental fee from my account before leaving. The first month after having it removed everything was fine, there was no rental fee billed, the 2nd month after it re-appeared on my bill and they tacked on an extra charge for the prior month as well as sent a separate mailing notice

  • by Anonymous Coward

    a dumbass republican will be elected by the stupid masses and everything the FCC has been trying to do in the last couple of years will be undone. Good bye Net Neutrality. Good Bye title II... Hello corruption.

  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:54AM (#51438289)

    The cable companies rape us and the socialists salivate at the chance of nationalizing things because a monopolized market has been created where no one is allowed to compete.

    I cannot lay cable against my cable company even in my own neighborhood. Last mile internet delivery is granted through local franchises and no one is permitted to trespass these. I can't pay a poll fee. I can't pay a conduit fee. I cannot run cable.

    I could very easily run fiber for my whole neighborhood RIGHT NOW giving everyone in my immediate area gigabit internet... on MY resources. The whole city? Obviously not. I'm just some guy. But my neighborhood... easy. But the law won't let me.

    And people don't connect this reality with the fact that they get raped by the cable companies.

    Imagine if there were but one sandwich shop... imagine how absurdly abusive it would be with prices, service, product quality. It would be bad.

    Well, that is what you've done with the exclusive franchise agreements. We don't need to nationalize our ISPs. We need to let more people... ideally everyone... run cable.

    Here some unimaginative fellow will say something like "I don't want lots of cables run along my street"... well, if lots of cables are being run then you don't see that because they'll be buried in a conduit.

    Next I might get someone saying something like "we don't have conduits right now to handle something that we're not at this moment doing"... to which I can only say "uh duh"... and yet if we changed the rules this sort of thing would become standard. Not literally tomorrow but within a few years.

    And what would government control? Well... the conduits. They'd have a network of pipes that people could run cable through and that they'd charge a flat fee to anyone running cable per foot or mile or whatever the proper distance is... The government wouldn't have to keep up with new technology or worry about anything in the pipe especially besides where the pipe went and how much room there was in the pipe for more cable. That's it.

    Set America free and the internet issue is GONE. The cable companies in that environment will either offer competitive non-fucking-stupid service... or go out of business. Like a light.

    And I won't have to listen to fucking communists talk about how everything would be better if we just let the government take control over everything.

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      What "socialist" have you seen advocating to nationalize internet service? I haven't seen any.

      The only calls for nationalization I have seen are for health care where the market has clearly failed and a few calls for large banks at the time they had their hands out for a trillion dollar bailout.

      • Any of them. You want individual campaigns cited, speeches made, bills put to the floor or what?

        Because asking for something like this is really sort of baffling to me.

        Why would you be surprised that a socialist would want to nationalize something? That's sort of their go to answer for everything.

        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          How about a bill put to the floor? Or even a transcript of a Congressional debate? You make it sound as if we have a Congress packed with socialists who might actually have an effect or cause serious consideration, I don't see any.

          The closest I see are local governments laying fiber within their jurisdiction.

          • I didn't say anything about congress until you asked for a citation and I gave a listing of different options.

            Saying I made it sound like congress was full of something when I didn't reference congress at all is a non-starter.

            Rephrase your argument of I'm going to assume you're too triggered and I won't be able to have a productive discussion.

            • by sjames ( 1099 )

              Well, only Congress can nationalize something. The local city council can't do it, now can they? The very word "nationalize" implies the federal government.

              Now, you offered bills put to the floor as an option and I picked it, so where are they?

              • "The cable companies rape us and the socialists salivate at the chance of nationalizing things because a monopolized market has been created where no one is allowed to compete."

                That is what I said. Now... I never said nor implied congress. I can show bills if you want. But I won't permit you to strawman my position by redefining my words as other than they were.

                If you accept that you have no power to change my argument then I can move on. If you refuse to accept that then we really can't go anywhere because

    • No community can ban access to a public utility (as defined by the state law) beyond reasonable fees to inspect and monitor the construction in the public right-of-way (ROW) for preservation of that ROW. A franchise agreement that purports to enact such a ban is illegal and will be struck down the first time a city tries to enforce it. Not that any city would try to enforce such a claim, it's blatantly unconstitutional.

      You don't understand the law, stop commenting on it.

      • Except I can't lay cable and neither can any company that doesn't have a franchise license and that is why we have duopoloies.

        Stay down.

  • Gee... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by quintessencesluglord ( 652360 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @09:56AM (#51438301)

    funny how "unfair billing practices" is know as fraud when you aren't a corporation.

  • Apple (Score:2, Interesting)

    You know, I don't know why Apple or some other tech company with vast amounts of idle cash doesn't just buy Comcast. I think that customers would be thrilled. At the very least you wouldn't have to worry about incorrect bills and shitty customer service. Not only that, it would be the ideal delivery mechanism for Apple and their products. They could tie it in with iTunes for music and movie streaming.

    Maybe it's a bit far fetched but who knows?

    • Re:Apple (Score:4, Interesting)

      by havana9 ( 101033 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @10:33AM (#51438533)

      You know, I don't know why Apple or some other tech company with vast amounts of idle cash doesn't just buy Comcast. I think that customers would be thrilled.

      Maybe it's because they know well that there are too many nails in the coffin to make Comcast a good and profitable company. If Google prefers to put a new fiber network I think it's because it's far cheaper to start from scratch on a new technology than to have to deal with legacy thechnology that will have to be mantained for existing users and the new technology that has to be deployed.

      • by waspleg ( 316038 )

        I'm sure it's that and not the ability to monitor everything going over their links for "telemetry" which is their money faucet vs a large up front capital investment and some maintenance.

  • I have 1 DVR for our main TV & 2 digital converter boxes for our upstairs TVs. The 2 DC boxes are supposed to be cheap; $2.95 each per month. When we first set them up, they didn't work. So I had to call Comcast and have them "program" them. After this, they started working, but I shortly got a letter saying that I was being under billed, and the correct price is $10. Of course, $10 was the cost of the original set-top boxes I returned to get the 2 cheaper DC boxes. I called them up to get the bill fixe
  • by stevegee58 ( 1179505 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @11:03AM (#51438723) Journal
    I was billed by Comcast for a year for a cable modem rental even though I bought my own. Yes, I admit I should have been reading every line entry on my bill every month but I wasn't. When I discovered this error I called Comcast and they immediately admitted the mistake and stopped billing me for it. However when I asked for my money back for the $10/month for the previous 12 months they got all snippy and said I had only a 60 day window to challenge erroneous charges.
    So I filed a formal complaint with the FCC and within days I was called back by Comcast and credited the 12 months of erroneous charges. I highly recommend this path since it was so absurdly easy.
    I've very happy to hear I'm not alone in this.
    • Same thing happened to me. 3 freaking times they started charging me for my own modem. (nearly... I got a letter the third time and pre-empted the actual bill). After my complaint to the FCC, I was called back by Comcast in under 24 hours with an apology. Now they send me a letter every month offering to upgrade my equipment "for free" because my current modem doesn't support the speed I'm paying for. I'm paying for the 150 Mbps tier (because I got a good deal due to what I think was a mistake on th
    • I was billed by Comcast for a year for a cable modem rental even though I bought my own.

      HOW I DISCOVERED COMCAST CUSTOMER SERVICE WAS EVIL INCARNATE

      Once upon a time (over a decade ago), I moved between states. Before leaving State 1, I called Comcast and said, "I'm moving. Cancel my service. I'm going to get Comcast in State 2. Should I return my cable modem?"

      "No," said the helpful Comcast rep, "Take your modem with you."

      I arrived in State 2. The tech who came to set up my "installation" (which was supposed to be free, and said so on the work order) said he'd give me a new modem t

  • It's easy for Congress members to Blast the cable industry by day, and pocket donations from the cable industry by night, accomplishing nothing towards consumer protection.

    • The senators speaking here are pretty consistently against corporate abuse, and have been pro-consumer, nevermind reasonably tech-astute (especially the Oregon senators). They're not the ones you should be slamming for taking bribes and doing nothing - these people actually walk the walk.

      The problem is that they're a minority in the senate, both in terms of being pro-consumer/anti-abuse, and in being part of the minority party. Contrast them to the Republicans that are busy decrying Net Neutrality, Title
  • No reason given. No announcement or warning. Just boom, new bill.

  • by jenningsthecat ( 1525947 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @01:48PM (#51440077)

    The last time I checked, fraud, extortion, and theft were all felonies. So stop all the chest-thumping and all the "OMG! the FCC!" nattering, and just enforce the fucking laws fer chrissake. Time to stop pretending that various service providers are somehow different than individuals who commit the same crimes. A corporation is a person before the law? Alright then, treat the corporations like persons - but go ALL the way, and start throwing asses in jails when and where appropriate. Some might say, "but in this case, we can only jail part of the person". I'm fine with that - how 'bout the head? Let's haul CEOs off in handcuffs. That'll cause a lot of second thoughts next time 'ripping off your own customers' is suggested as a viable business model.

    • "I'm fine with that - how 'bout the head? Let's haul CEOs off in handcuffs."

      I say revoke the corporations' limited liability and jail the shareholders.

  • Here's what I want investigated: the rather recent and ongoing sharp rise in cable Internet package costs. Why? Has free agency broken out on line, requiring cablecos to cover all those fat contracts?

    Or is it far more likely that they are trying to make up for lost cable TV revenues (cord cutters) on the backs of all their customers.

    If they do have legit increase costs for providing broadband, fine: show all your work to the FCC to justify it.
  • Imagine how bad it would be to not be able to get a cable bill at all. I don't have to imagine, I know.

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