New Ways To Avoid Surprise Subscription TV Bills

10/23/2016 01:40 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2016

When Rosemary Kukla opened this month's Comcast bill, she was in for an early Halloween surprise.

"I was being charged another $19 for Showtime," says Kukla, a retired grocery store worker from Lansdale, Pa. "We never ordered Showtime."

Kukla isn't alone. A new survey by the polling company Winq found 41 percent of respondents were billed by their subscription TV service for something they never ordered. And the federal government is paying attention. Last week, it fined Comcast a record $2.3 million for charging customers for services and equipment they didn't ask for.

Unwanted bills are avoidable. Cable TV providers are working to ensure customers like Kukla don't end up with the wrong charge, in part because of complaints from their customers and in part because of government pressure. But customers can take steps to prevent these "gotcha" bills, too.

One way is to fight hard against the extras. Consider what happened to Joe Dean, a retired district manager for a pharmaceutical company in Jackson, Miss. He received a phone call from DirecTV offering him Cinemax for "only" $14 a month. He declined.

Imagine his surprise when he discovered a Cinemax charge on his DirecTV bill. But Dean knew what to do.

"I called customer service and explained what had happened," he says. "The representative immediately credited the charges to reflect on the next bill."

DirecTV also gave him four months of HBO as an apology.

There's a term for these subscription TV shenanigans: negative option billing. It's a questionable business practice in which you agree to have a service provided automatically and you must either pay for the service or specifically decline it in advance of billing.

"It's an increasingly popular billing tactic used by subscription services," says Bonnie Patten, the executive director of Truth in Advertising, a non-profit organization. "Unfortunately, all too often the companies using these negative option offers fail to obtain consumers’ express consent for the recurring charges."

Although no one tracks the number of complaints against cable and subscription TV companies accused of using negative option billing, it is thought to be roughly comparable to the wireless industry's "cramming" problem. Patten says approximately 15 to 20 million Americans are victims of cramming each year, with only 5 percent even realizing it.

"These unauthorized cramming charges cost consumers an estimated $2 billion a year," she adds.

Kukla's story has a happy ending. After I contacted Comcast, it reviewed her file. Its records show that someone had, indeed, ordered Showtime from her remote control, an action that requires several steps. Nonetheless, a representative called her and agreed to zero out her November bill.

"They told me my December bill would be correct," says Kukla.

In retrospect, Kukla says it's possible she pushed the wrong button. She'd seen a notification for something called Xfinity Beta on her screen recently. The options were "allow" and "dismiss."

"I arrowed over to dismiss and exited the guide, but did not hit OK," she says. "I was sleepy."

A problem like hers was preventable, according to Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury. Comcast customers can lock their accounts so that ordering new service requires a pin number. They can also ensure their email and phone number are up-to-date so that they'll receive immediate notification when they order new service. A representative offered Kukla the lock, which she says she will accept.

“We have been working very hard on improving the experience of our customers in all respects and are laser-focused on this," she added. "We acknowledge that, in the past, our customer service should have been better and our bills clearer, and that customers have at times been unnecessarily frustrated or confused."

She added that Comcast has already made many improvements, even before the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau started its investigation almost two years ago. "The changes the bureau asked us to make were in most cases changes we had already committed to make, and many were already well underway or in our work plan to implement in the near future," she adds.

Assurances aside, you have to watch your TV bill carefully and know what to do when you see an increase. Tory Christian, a retired teacher from North Canton, Ohio, sees small increases on every other Time Warner cable bill.

In 2010, for example, Christian spent $131 for basic cable and internet. The next year, the same services cost $147. By 2015, the bill had ballooned to $175 and Christian had to cut back services.

"Basically I have to call every few months to find out why the bill keeps climbing, and then they have a new deal and they drop it back to what it was," says Christian. "I always ask for the 'retention' department when you go to the voicemail options. That helps, but it still takes time."

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