Comcast guilty of slamming, has “technological and monopolistic” power over customers, judge rules

by Steve Blum • ,

A $3.6 billion case against Comcast was whittled down to a $9.1 million fine plus refunds to affected customers (with 12% interest) by a Seattle judge in a lawsuit brought by the Washington attorney general. Initially, the consumer action accused Comcast of deceiving customers when it sold them service plans that covered “inside wiring”, but excluded wiring that’s inside of walls. Additional allegations relating to way Comcast sells service plans were added later.

King County Superior Court Judge Timothy Bradshaw ruled that the “inside of walls” exception wasn’t deceptive or unfair, but Comcast’s sales tactics were both. More than a third of the time, when a technician or call center rep signed a customer up for a free month’s worth of a service plan, the fact that it would automatically continue at a monthly cost of $5 wasn’t mentioned. He called that “slamming”…

Enrolling customers in the [service protection plan (SPP)] without disclosing recurring monthly fees has the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the population and is an unfair or deceptive act or practice under [Washington’s Consumer Protection Act].

One month “free” offers were automatically rolled to retail rate in month 2. Such would not be a reasonable consumers net impression.

In addition, each time Comcast charged an unsuspecting consumer for the SPP after failing to disclose the fees at the time of subscription it committed an additional unfair/deceptive act. Customers subscribed without fee disclosures would have no reason to scrutinize their bills for SPP charges and the law does not so burden the consumer.

In June 2013 Comcast decided not to send welcome letters or emails to [Washington] subscribers after it was stated in an internal email that “if we welcome SPP Subs via email, we are essentially reminding them they have this plan and then they may want to cancel it”.

Auto-charging after the first month in this circumstance was “just not right”…

Enrolling customers in the SPP — a paid product for which Comcast charged a recurring, monthly fee — without obtaining affirmative consent has the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the population and is a deceptive act or practice.

Bradshaw said fining Comcast is appropriate because “the power imbalance, technological and monopolistic when dealing with cable/internet needs, potentially rendered the cable/internet customer here more vulnerable”, but scaled back the attorney general’s proposed penalty because of “a nucleus of company good faith”.