Six Democratic US senators today 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, wrote 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.). The senators described Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and broadband company, as a repeat offender. “We are troubled upon hearing complaints of consumers being charged the modem rental fee after they have returned the rented equipment to Comcast or being charged the rental fee having never rented a modem in the first place,” the senators wrote. “Not only are the majority of customers using automatic payment systems and may not personally authorize every erroneous charge, many consumers report having to call and remedy this problem throughout several billing cycles. In fact, customer help boards found online at Comcast’s Help and Support Forum contain complaints about this exact problem.” Comcast increased its monthly modem rental fee from $8 to $10 (in late 2014) “and makes an estimated $275 to $300 million a quarter from these fees,” the letter said. The problem is made worse by lack of competition, the senators wrote. When contacted by Ars today, a Comcast spokesperson noted that “modems are available to consumers at retail, and rental isn’t required for broadband service.”
Like most people these days, we use online bill paying. We enter our bill pay information once, the company sends an e-mail notification of the bill, we review it, and if it’s correct, we click Pay.
What we won’t do is Auto Bill Pay where you give a company permission to automatically debit your credit card or bank account every month. This is especially true if the company in question is a cable or water company, or anything that purports to be a health club. The first two are prone to errors (see my recent column about my neighbor’s $41,000 water bill after a meter reader transposed two digits); the latter is notorious for continuing to charge your credit card months after you’ve cancelled (or have expired). Further, our credit cards are compromised too often these days requiring replacement so an automatic debit is a recipe for disaster and/or having your water turned off. This is especially annoying in August.
What’s puzzling about our cable company’s billing site is that your only two options are either automatic bill pay (NEVER!) or having to re-input all of your bank or credit card information each and every month. I was hoping I had misunderstood this and contacted their Customer Chat line. Here is the verbatim transcript:
Alwin: Thank you for contacting XYZ Cable. At the end of our chat you will be given the option of taking a brief survey. My name is Alwin. How may I assist you?