Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Brad Tuttle
June 24, 2016

It probably wasn’t necessary to conduct a federal investigation to find out that America’s cable companies routinely mistreat and rip off customers. Within the past week, after all, yet another survey confirmed that American consumers despise Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and basically the entire cable-Internet complex—an industry that always ranks lowest in customer satisfaction ratings.

All the complaints couldn’t be ignored forever by our leaders in Washington, and this week the results of a U.S. Senate investigation led by Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) were released in a report entitled “Some Cable and Satellite Companies Do Not Refund Customer Overcharges.” While the focus of that report was fairly narrow, and only covered but one aspect of why cable companies infuriate customers, a Senate hearing that followed the report exposed many other problems customers have with their cable companies. McCaskill also issued her own report on the subject, targeting bad customer service and faulty billing by the cable companies. Altogether, the research shows several of the most hated cable company practices–which are probably depressingly familiar to cable customers.

Overcharging customers. Let’s start with the focus of the main report, which showed that Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications—which will soon merge and become one company—are guilty of widespread overbilling for equipment, programming, and assorted other fees. TWC will overcharge customers around $2 million in 2016, according to the Senate report’s estimate, while Charter admitted it has been overcharging customers to the tune of $443,000 per month.

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No effort to rein in overcharges. “Time Warner Cable and Charter made no effort to trace equipment overcharges to their origin unless customers specifically asked them to and did not provide notice or refunds to customers,” the Senate report found. (Comcast and DirecTV, by contrast, have policies in place to automatically check that charges are correct and refund overcharges.) In the hearing, a TWC executive justified its policy by way of saying that some customers underpay, and therefore it supposedly sort of evens out, the Consumerist reported.

Refusal to do what the customer asks. This one will be no surprise whatsoever to anyone who has called their pay TV provider to request a lower price or simply cancel the service. Basically, customer “service” agents are on a mission to talk the customer out of either option. “As stated in a Time Warner Cable training document, the goal of the retention agent was to ‘do the opposite of what the customer is calling for. If the customer is calling in to cancel, your goal is to not cancel the services!'” the report stated, according to the Wall Street Journal. Mind you, all telecom companies work this way, not just TWC. “And if the customer wants to lower the bill, you’re going to try to avoid that, and perhaps even raise the bill!”

Failure to tell people how much they’ll really pay. The annoying customer service practice mentioned above would rarely be necessary if another hated practice wasn’t the standard. We’re talking about the business’s pricing structure, in which customers are enticed in with low introductory prices that inevitably will be jacked up much higher down the road. How much higher? Many customers now know that within three years of signing up they can be easily be charged 50% more than their intro rate, assuming they don’t call up to complain and demand a better price. But it’s often impossible to tell how much their cable company will try to charge them for service down the road.

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Essentially, cable companies “figure out a way to make the entry price as low as possible; figure out how to roll people off that entry price as quickly as you can, and then deal with their anger once the price has gone up,” McCaskill said at the hearing. She then asked a panel of telecom representatives, “Do any of you advertise the price after the promotion?” No one answered, according to Consumerist.

Impossible to find out what the best deal is. “Customer service representatives at DirecTV were told to only offer the lowest price option ‘if [they] will lose the sale,’ as this package was only used as an option for customers who were considering cancelling service,” McCaskill’s report explained. “Similarly, customer service representatives at DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and Charter were instructed to first attempt to sell customers higher priced packages before moving to less expensive options based on the customers’ reactions.”

The websites of companies like Comcast, Charter, and Dish either don’t list the truly lowest price service option, or make it nearly impossible to find it, so the typical customer is in the dark about whether or not they’re being offered a good deal.

Overcharging on fees just because they can. Often, fees that aren’t advertised are added to cable customer bills, and the rate at which they’re charged have nothing to do with costs incurred by provider. Instead, they are “set according to the company’s overall revenue goals, taking into account what the market will bear, and sometimes considering cost, while also focusing on the customer’s willingness to pay for a certain service or piece of equipment,” McCaskill’s report stated.

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Failure to automatically refund nonsensical fees. McCaskill mentioned in her report that she personally called up her cable provider a couple years ago complaining about an unnecessary $10 charge. “I learned that I was paying a fee that the company was no longer charging its newer customers and that the company would immediately remove the charge on my bill. I also learned that the only way that I could have known about this and gotten the fee removed was to do exactly what I did and call the company,” she said, according to USA Today. “Had it been up to the company, I would have been paying that fee forever.”

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