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The Washington state attorney general’s $100 million lawsuit against Comcast, filed yesterday, uses a sales script and transcripts of chats with customers to make the case that Comcast deceived subscribers when marketing what the state calls “near-worthless” service plans.
Since January 2011, Comcast made $73 million selling Service Protection Plans (SPP) for up to $5 a month to 500,000 customers in Washington.
But the service plans were sold to customers under false pretenses, with Comcast describing the plans as being far more comprehensive and useful than they were, Attorney General Bob Ferguson alleged.
Comcast’s service plan revenue was mostly profit.
Between January 2013 and July 2015, Washington customers paid Comcast $41.6 million for service plans that helped them avoid only about $5 million in service call charges.
That’s a $36.6 million profit gained largely because of deceptive advertising, the lawsuit said.
One of Ferguson’s key pieces of evidence is a sales script that Comcast used until June 2016. (Comcast recently made changes to address the attorney general’s complaints.) Though Comcast service plans had various limitations and purportedly “covered” certain services that were actually available for free, the “sales scripts did not include any reference to limitations on the SPP’s coverage,” the AG’s lawsuit said. “Nor did Comcast’s training manuals teach its employees to disclose the limitations to Washington consumers.”
The AG’s office told Ars that it obtained the script “in the course of our investigation,” but declined to be more specific.
The script and other information are in the complaint filed in King County Superior Court (full text).
The script directed sales reps to make the following claims when trying to convince customers to buy the plans:
[S]ubscribing to [the SPP] will cover service call charges that require repairs to cable TV, high-speed Internet or telephone wiring inside your home.
Comcast is now offering a comprehensive service protection plan, eliminating any concerns about being charged additional fees for service calls related to inside wiring.
For a low monthly fee, our Comcast Service Protection Plan (SPP) will cover all chargeable service calls for all 3 lines of business.
The plan provides you with the confidence that should you have a problem with any Comcast service, we will be able to take care of this for you without additional service fees.
Subscribing to the plan will cover service call charges that require repairs to twisted telephone wiring, Comcast cable television wiring and/or Comcast cable Internet service wiring located inside your home.
Without the SPP, you will be charged a fee for repairs to the wiring located inside your home.
Comcast made similarly broad claims on its website and pitched the service plans to consumers when they first signed up for Comcast and during technical support and service calls.
What the plans don’t cover
But the claims are misleading for several reasons, the lawsuit said.
The service plans do not cover repairs of wire concealed within walls (or “wall-fished”).
Some customers were told that the plans cover work outside their homes, even though repairs to Comcast equipment or outside wiring “are already covered [for free] by Comcast’s Customer Guarantee promises,” the lawsuit said.
“In short, due to limitations in the Terms and Conditions, the SPP often ends up failing to cover any repairs at all,” the complaint said. “The short coaxial cable running from a customer’s outlet to the cable box is typically Comcast Equipment that is covered by the Comcast Guarantee rather than the SPP, as are the HDMI cables provided by Comcast, and in many houses all of the remaining wiring is wall-fished.
And as noted above, the SPP does not cover repairs to customer equipment, Comcast equipment, or outside wiring, either.
In its advertisements and sales scripts, Comcast omitted the fact that repairs to customer equipment are not considered part of a ‘service call.’ Likewise, the advertisements failed to disclose that the Comcast Guarantee already covers service calls that “result from a Comcast equipment or network problem.”
Comcast did not require customers to sign any agreement or confirm that they read the service plan terms and conditions before subscribing, and Comcast doesn’t train or require its sales reps to send a copy of the terms and conditions to customers, the lawsuit said.
Besides the sales script, the lawsuit contains e-mail and chat transcripts that customers posted to Comcast support forums.
In one chat, a Comcast employee incorrectly claims that service protection plans are needed to cover repairs outside a home.
“Without the Service Protection Plan, you will incur a service fee when a technician has to make repairs in or outside your residence,” the Comcast employee told a customer who disputed a $60 charge for replacement of an outside wire.
In another similar case, a sales rep insisted that “the Fee for outside wirings is valid since there is no Service Protection Plan in your account,” even though Comcast’s Customer Guarantee is supposed to cover fixes to the outside wires.
AG: Definition of “inside wiring” is misleading
The lawsuit also objects to how Comcast representatives define “inside wiring.” Comcast reps told customers that inside wiring “begins 12 inches outside of the customer’s residence and extends to the individual phone jacks, the back of the computer, and cable outlets and extensions.”
“Comcast did not tell representatives to disclose to consumers that in-the-wall wiring is excluded from the ‘inside wiring’ definition,” the lawsuit said. “The Agreement for Residential Services also does not define ‘Inside Wiring’ as excluding concealed wires.”
Service calls generally cost $36.50 to $70 each, but Comcast’s process for determining whether service calls cost customers money is haphazard, the lawsuit said.
Charges were levied to customers when technicians applied certain “fix codes” to a service call, but “Comcast does not formally train the technicians on what each fix code means,” the lawsuit said.
Fixing a broken cable box doesn’t result in a charge for customers, but anything considered “customer education” results in a charge. “Customer education” fees are waived for those who pay for service protection plans.
“Thus, if a technician fixes a broken Comcast cable box but also provides ‘customer education’ during the service call, the customer will be charged for the service call if the technician applies the customer education code because customer education fix codes are chargeable,” the lawsuit said. “This occurred 2,078 times between 17 June 2014 and June 2016.”
Comcast vowed to fight the lawsuit, saying the service plans provided customers “great value.” Comcast has made changes in how it markets the plans to satisfy concerns raised by the attorney general’s office, but it didn’t offer enough concessions to avoid a lawsuit.
Ferguson’s suit seeks refunds for customers.