Why the FCC is hitting Comcast with a $2.3 million fine

Comcast, the cable giant, has charged customers for products they never ordered, such as premium channels or extra cable boxes, government regulators say. 

Mary Altaffer/AP/File
A man walks past the Comcast Building in New York. Government regulators have fined Comcast $2.3 million, saying the cable giant has charged customers for stuff they never ordered, like premium channels or extra cable boxes.

Comcast faces a $2.3 million fine from government regulators who say the cable company, the nation’s largest, charged customers for services and equipment they never ordered.

In a resolution of an investigation opened two years ago on the basis of more than 1,000 customer complaints, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that by next year, the company must send customers separate order confirmations for new services, allow customers to block additional cable services, improve record keeping and require more training for employees who charged customers without their authorization.

"It is basic that a cable bill should include charges only for services and equipment ordered by the customer – nothing more and nothing less," FCC enforcement chief Travis LeBlanc told the Associated Press. "We expect all cable and phone companies to take responsibility for the accuracy of their bills and to ensure their customers have authorized any charges."

The decision probably won't do much for Comcast's reputation for shoddy customer service – one highlighted this summer by hearings held by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which criticized Comcast and other companies for a host of unfair billing practices.

In 2015, after the death of Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, The Christian Science Monitor noted that the rise of the company had come with controversy, while apparently not making much of a dent in its profitability:

Consumerist dubbed Comcast as the "worst company in America" in 2014. Recently, the cable company has gained infamy for its poor customer service. Among other incidents, back in February, a Chicago-area woman received her bill from Comcast that addressed her as a derogatory slur for a woman instead of her actual name after she complained to the company she had not received bills several months. One couple recorded its phone call with a Comcast customer representative who kept them on the line for a long period questioning them on why they wanted to cancel their subscription after they switched to another provider.

David Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president, has admitted that the company needs better customer service. "It bothers us we have so much trouble delivering high quality of service to customers on a regular basis," he said, according to the Washington Post. "Sometimes, we need a kick in the butt."

On Tuesday, Comcast said that it has been working to improve customer service, attributing problems to "isolated errors or customer confusion" rather than to company policies designed to overcharge its 22 million cable-TV customers. The company admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to pay the fine.

The investigation undertaken by the FCC turned up cases in which the company billed customers for services or equipment that they had specifically declined in conversations with Comcast representatives.

In many cases, according to the agency, customers were told that only six months' worth of billing problems could be resolved because of the company's computer systems. And many customers complained that to resolve such problems, they often had to make "hours-long and repeated phone calls" and weather "unhelpful or abusive behavior" from customer-service reps, according to the Associated Press.

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice told Reuters that the company disagreed with the legal theory behind the FCC fines, but acknowledged that "in the past, our customer service should have been better and our bills clearer." 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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