5 On Your Side

TV, phone, Internet companies' prices can be 'deceptive,' AG says

Posted February 3, 2014 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated February 4, 2014 2:27 p.m. EST

— Thousands of North Carolina residents have complained to authorities in recent years that their TV, phone and Internet providers quoted them one price and then charged another – in some cases, more than double.

WRAL's 5 On Your Side has heard from many unsatisfied customers, including Betty Mazor, who says DirecTV promised her a package price of $72.99 per month, but charged her much more.

In the past three years, the North Carolina Attorney General's office has received more than 2,700 complaints about phone, Internet and TV companies. Many of those complaints allege pricing problems with Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, AT&T U-verse and Dish network.

WRAL's 5 On Your Side spoke with several company representatives who said customers were simply confused about their bills. While that may play a role in some of the problems, it does not represent all of them.

Mazor, of Littleton, says she spoke with a DirecTV employee last fall who promised her the $72.99-per-month price, plus tax and surcharge, which she thought was a great deal.

“Yeah, until the first bill came. Then things weren’t so fun anymore,” she said.

Her first bill came last October and was $93 – $20 more than she was promised on the phone. November’s bill was even higher at $97. Then, December’s bill came in at $184 – more than double the price she says she was promised.

Mazor says she initially thought the overcharges were honest mistakes, but later changed her mind after talking with several DirecTV representatives and their supervisors. She took extensive notes during her many conversations with the company and questioned the representatives about why she was not getting the promised price.

“(A supervisor) flat out told me, she said that they have no record of how much I’m to pay a month, and I said, ‘Well, how do you bill me?’” Mazor recalled. “I said, ‘Go back to the day when I first ordered the system in September … How much does it say my monthly bill is? What are you charging me for that package?’ She said, ‘We don’t know. We don’t keep notes like that.’”

After numerous conversations, Mazor says, she finally asked DirecTV to cancel her service, but the company told her she would have to pay a $250 cancellation fee.

After 5 On Your Side got involved, Mazor got a call from DirecTV's Office of the President. She says the representative admitted the recording of her initial conversation confirmed the $72.99 price, but the representative said the company could not honor it.

DirecTV would only tell 5 On Your Side that they "reviewed the call" and "there was clearly some miscommunication.” The spokesperson said the company will waive Mazor's $250 cancellation fee.

“They’ve got to be stopped from taking advantage of their customers like this,” Mazor said.

David deSerres, of Raleigh, says he had a similar problem. He ordered basic cable and Internet from Time Warner Cable. The bills for September and October came in as promised at $69.60, but his bill quickly skyrocketed.

"In November, they say my current monthly services are $140.64,” he said. “Where they’re coming up with all these numbers, I have no idea, but I’m not going to just sit here and let these guys run over me and harass me daily like they’ve been doing.”

Time Warner Cable eventually came up with a monthly rate of $91.92 for deSerres – $22 more than the quoted price, which the company now says it can't offer.

“I think it’s bait and switch,” deSerres said. “I think they're taking advantage of people.”

Time Warner refused to discuss any specific complaints on the record, even when customers gave permission. However, the company released a statement, saying that customers should call if they have questions about pricing.

"Our representatives can explain how their choice of upgrades and additional equipment, as well as government franchise fees, will affect their bill  – and help them find the right package for their interests and budget," Time Warner said in a statement.

Based on the general comments the company emailed and what 5 On Your Side knows about deSerres’ case, it appears Time Warner mistakenly gave him a discounted "bulk" price that they now won't honor.

The state Attorney General’s office suggests customers take several steps to protect themselves.

"We urge consumers to try and get email confirmation of an offer,” Attorney General Roy Cooper said. “If they're not willing to put it in writing then that's a potential problem, and perhaps that's something that we need to look at under the law.”

A Time Warner Cable spokesman insists customers do get written confirmation, but many customers told 5 On Your Side that they did not.

Another thing customers can do is visit the company’s website to find out exactly what's included in the different packages and choose a level of service before signing up.

“If you’re advertising one thing, and if you’re telling consumers one thing and actually doing another, then it can be an unfair and deceptive trade practice," Cooper said.

While on the phone with the representative, get specifics on extra charges for equipment, taxes and fees. Then, regularly check for promotions, especially when your agreement is up, and negotiate with the retention department.

“Use the power of their dollar with these companies to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go somewhere else,’” Cooper said.

When all else fails, file a written complaint with the Attorney General’s office.

“One of the problems, I think, in this industry is that the packages are too complicated,” Cooper said. “A company ought to do what it says it’s going to do.”

"They need to know that the consumer is what's got them in business, and the consumer is what can taken them out of business," Mazor added.

As people watch TV through online devices and switch to other services for movies and other content, experts say it will impact how the big providers have to do business.

One example is Netflix. The Internet video service added another 2.3 million U.S. subscribers to burnish its status as one of the world's most popular entertainment outlets, according to fourth-quarter numbers released in January.

Netflix ended December with 33.4 million U.S. subscribers who stream video over high-speed Internet connections, up from 31.1 million in September. The company picked up another 1.74 million subscribers outside the U.S. to end last year with 10.9 million international customers.