New ways to avoid surprise subscription TV bills

When Rosemary Kukla opened this month’s Comcast bill, she was in for an early Halloween surprise.

“I was being charged another $19 for Showtime,” says Kukla, a retired grocery store worker from Lansdale, Pa. “We never ordered Showtime.”

Kukla isn’t alone. A new survey by the polling company Winq found 41 percent of respondents were billed by their subscription TV service for something they never ordered. And the federal government is paying attention. Last week, it fined Comcast a record $2.3 million for charging customers for services and equipment they didn’t ask for.

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Unwanted bills are avoidable. Cable TV providers are working to ensure customers like Kukla don’t end up with the wrong charge, in part because of complaints from their customers and in part because of government pressure. But customers can take steps to prevent these “gotcha” bills, too.

One way is to fight hard against the extras. Consider what happened to Joe Dean, a retired district manager for a pharmaceutical company in Jackson, Miss. He received a phone call from DirecTV offering him Cinemax for “only” $14 a month. He declined.

Imagine his surprise when he discovered a Cinemax charge on his DirecTV bill. But Dean knew what to do.

“I called customer service and explained what had happened,” he says. “The representative immediately credited the charges to reflect on the next bill.”

DirecTV also gave him four months of HBO as an apology.

There’s a term for these subscription TV shenanigans: negative option billing. It’s a questionable business practice in which you agree to have a service provided automatically and you must either pay for the service or specifically decline it in advance of billing.

“It’s an increasingly popular billing tactic used by subscription services,” says Bonnie Patten, the executive director of Truth in Advertising, a non-profit organization. “Unfortunately, all too often the companies using these negative option offers fail to obtain consumers’ express consent for the recurring charges.”

Although no one tracks the number of complaints against cable and subscription TV companies accused of using negative option billing, it is thought to be roughly comparable to the wireless industry’s “cramming” problem. Patten says approximately 15 to 20 million Americans are victims of cramming each year, with only 5 percent even realizing it.

“These unauthorized cramming charges cost consumers an estimated $2 billion a year,” she adds.

Kukla’s story has a happy ending. After I contacted Comcast, it reviewed her file. Its records show that someone had, indeed, ordered Showtime from her remote control, an action that requires several steps. Nonetheless, a representative called her and agreed to zero out her November bill.

“They told me my December bill would be correct,” says Kukla.

In retrospect, Kukla says it’s possible she pushed the wrong button. She’d seen a notification for something called Xfinity Beta on her screen recently. The options were “allow” and “dismiss.”

“I arrowed over to dismiss and exited the guide, but did not hit OK,” she says. “I was sleepy.”

A problem like hers was preventable, according to Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury. Comcast customers can lock their accounts so that ordering new service requires a pin number. They can also ensure their email and phone number are up-to-date so that they’ll receive immediate notification when they order new service. A representative offered Kukla the lock, which she says she will accept.

“We have been working very hard on improving the experience of our customers in all respects and are laser-focused on this,” she added. “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.”

She added that Comcast has already made many improvements, even before the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau started its 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,” she adds.

Assurances aside, you have to watch your TV bill carefully and know what to do when you see an increase. Tory Christian, a retired teacher from North Canton, Ohio, sees small increases on every other Time Warner cable bill.

In 2010, for example, Christian spent $131 for basic cable and internet. The next year, the same services cost $147. By 2015, the bill had ballooned to $175 and Christian had to cut back services.

“Basically I have to call every few months to find out why the bill keeps climbing, and then they have a new deal and they drop it back to what it was,” says Christian. “I always ask for the ‘retention’ department when you go to the voicemail options. That helps, but it still takes time.”

Is Comcast doing enough to stop this "accidental" billing?

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11 thoughts on “New ways to avoid surprise subscription TV bills

  1. There are a lot of web design shenanigans a company can pull to trick you into signing up for upsells you didn’t want. Pre-ticked checkboxes, date fields that invite unintended entries, popups that prevent you from seeing what’s going on under them, rococo scripting that works differently in every browser…

  2. I had Comcast back around 2000 and its service was mediocre at best. I had reliability issues with the TV and Internet service and always had to fight with it over outages. I finally moved over to Time Warner Cable which was a bit better and stayed with it until AT&T came in with Uverse and have been with it for the past 7 or 8 years.
    I will say tat it appears no matter whose service one uses, there always seems to be increases in the cost of services annually or even more often if there is some obnoxious fee the federal, state or local authority wants to add onto these companies (which they immediately pass on to us).
    I have seen my bill creep from about $120 a month to almost $200 a month. I have had to change the level of service and I always ask if there are any specials that allow me to reduce my costs. I find there is usually something for six months or a year that will upgrade something, like my Internet speed, but actually reduces my overall monthly cost by twenty or thirty dollars. Its a real pain, but every little bit helps.

  3. I just love my monthly bill from Optimum (Cablevision). Nothing like paying for about 15 sports channels (actually lumped as a separate category). Who asked me if I wanted any of that ?, right no one. Man, I’ve really got to start looking into Hulu or a Roku or something.

    1. That is one of the biggest wrongs of cable/dish…in that ESPN and similar sports networks get huge fees from cable/dish, which they (cable) pass along to every subscriber, even those who never watch a sports channel. There needs to be an opt-out, with corresponding fee reduction, for those never watched sports channels.

  4. I get a kick out of all the Xfinity Internet commercials touting their super-fast download times, etc. The first time subscribers have a problem, and they will, they’ll soon realize that lousy customer service by any other name is still Comcast.

  5. Those subscription and ordering options are much easier to get to than you think. One of my kids almost ordered something for us a few months ago just playing with the remote. I had to add a PIN just in case. One more click, and I would have been billed $14.99.

    1. Yes, I’ve seen that sneaky business where you can (inadvertently) order something with a click of the remote. I don’t have kids in the house, but I always think it’s too easy and tempting for them.

  6. I liked it when the ‘by-line’ was at the top of the story, not then end. I like to know who I’m reading when I start. It’s what other news organizations do.

  7. I feel for the OP and and as a whole dislike negative option billing.. but do think that in some cases it’s a good idea..

    Here’s one part of the overall story I found interesting.. At the beginning the narrative is …

    “I was being charged another $19 for Showtime,” says Kukla, a retired grocery store worker from Lansdale, Pa. “We never ordered Showtime.”

    … but then towards the end, it’s finally disclosed…

    “Kukla’s story has a happy ending. After I contacted Comcast, it reviewed her file. Its records show that someone had, indeed, ordered Showtime from her remote control, an action that requires several steps. Nonetheless, a representative called her and agreed to zero out her November bill.

    “They told me my December bill would be correct,” says Kukla.

    In retrospect, Kukla says it’s possible she pushed the wrong button. She’d seen a notification for something called Xfinity Beta on her screen recently. The options were “allow” and “dismiss.”

    So, it while it appears that perhaps the process is not as clear-cut as it might be, that it WAS in fact ordered.. which contradicts what the opening statement directly asserts..

  8. Wow, is this similar to Wells Fargo opening up all those accounts without their poor customer’s approval? Surely not. Just makes me wonder if the cable company employees have a certain “quota” they need to reach, as it happens so frequently…

  9. Of course Comcast, Cox and alike are modern day highway robbers. But look how well you educate us the little people.
    Nowhere in the lengthy article there is indication which federal agency we all should comlain to when cheated with the “negative option”.

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