The suit alleges more than 1.8 million violations of the state’s Consumer Protection Act involving Comcast’s service-protection plan and the way the company conducts credit checks on new customers.
Washington state has lodged a $100 million consumer-protection lawsuit against cable-television giant Comcast.
Comcast engaged “in a pattern of deceptive practices,” the state claimed Monday, saying it believes Comcast committed more than 1.8 million individual violations of the state Consumer Protection Act, affecting 500,000 state residents.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson briefed the media about the lawsuit Monday, saying that Comcast’s “deceptive” practices came in three areas involving repair charges and credit checks.
Are you a Comcast customer?
The state’s lawsuit aims to distribute most of the money back to Comcast customers if the case is ruled in favor of the state.
How to know you may have been affected:
• If you were a subscriber to Comcast’s service-protection plan between January 2011 and now.
• If you were charged for a repair that involved Comcast-owned equipment or a network problem.
• If you paid a deposit to forgo a credit check and received one anyway. Or if you got a credit check done and were charged a fee for having poor credit despite the report showing you have a good credit score.
In suing Philadelphia-based Comcast, which has annual revenue of more than $74.5 billion, the state is targeting the largest cable company in the country and a popular target for customer-service complaints.
Ferguson declined to say whether his office was also investigating Comcast competitors on similar claims, citing the office’s practice of not commenting until possible investigations reach a certain point.
The $100 million being sought would make the suit one of the largest consumer-protection cases brought by the state.
Earlier this summer, the state announced a $26 million settlement with Volkswagen that, at the time, was said to bethe third-largest “recovery” from a consumer-protection case in Washington history.
The case revolves in part around a Comcast service plan that customers can subscribe to for a monthly $4.99 fee. The company says the plan covers repairs to customer-owned wiring related to Xfinity TV, voice and internet. Comcast marketing material says the plan is “comprehensive.”
But in many cases, the state claims, Comcast charged for or would not repair customer issues, despite the online description of the plan.
“It simply covers the technician visiting the customer’s house and declaring that the customer’s equipment is broken,” the lawsuit says.
Comcast has stopped selling new service-protection plans to customers in the state. Those who already subscribe still have the service.
The suit also alleges Comcast charged thousands of customers for repairs involving Comcast-owned equipment, despite saying in its materials that it repairs all problems related to its own equipment. It also mentions a specific billing code Comcast uses that allows technicians “to add service charges to a normally not charged fix code.”
The third part of the suit addresses the way Comcast handles credit checks. When signing up for Comcast services, new customers are subject to a credit check. But they can pay a deposit instead to forgo a check.
In many cases, however, Comcast ran the check anyway even when people opted out, the state claims. In other situations, Comcast charged the deposit fee to people even after checking their credit score and finding they had a high score.
“This case is a classic example of a big corporation systemically deceiving Washington state consumers and putting profits above those customers and the law,” Ferguson said at the Monday briefing.
The state first became aware of the practices after an employee in the Attorney General’s Office, who was a Comcast customer, alerted the office to the credit-check issue. The office then began investigating Comcast’s practices more than a year ago.
Comcast declined to comment on specifics of the allegations or the suit. It did say it was not aware of the extent of the suit before the state’s news release was issued.
“The Service Protection Plan has given those Washington consumers who chose to purchase it great value by completely covering over 99 percent of their repair calls. We worked with the Attorney General’s office to address every issue they raised, and we made several improvements based on their input,” Beth Hester, Comcast vice president of external affairs in Washington state, said in a statement.
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“Given that we were committed to continue working collaboratively with the Attorney General’s office, we’re surprised and disappointed that they have instead chosen litigation. We stand behind our products and services and will vigorously defend ourselves.”
At Monday’s briefing, Ferguson retorted that Comcast was aware of the impending lawsuit. “They were not surprised,” he said. “Period. Full stop.”
Ferguson’s office has been working with Comcast for more than a year on the investigation, he said, adding that Comcast did make some “improvements” to the plan over the past month.
Ultimately, he was not satisfied with the changes Comcast had made. “Nothing changes the fact that they were deceptive in how they advertised this plan,” Ferguson said.
Comcast’s service-protection plan covers “standard maintenance” of Xfinity TV, internet and voice services for a monthly fee, according to Comcast’s website.
The exact figure the state is seeking in the suit has not been determined, but is estimated at about $100 million. The state wants reimbursement for the half-million Washington customers who paid about $73 million in subscription fees for the protection plan in the past five years.
The state’s suit also is asking for customers who paid for repairs involving Comcast equipment to be repaid. Under the Consumer Protection Act, each violation can be subject to a $2,000 fee.
Washington state routinely sues organizations under the state Consumer Protection Act when it thinks residents have been misled by businesses.
In December, Washington state sued iYogi, a large tech-support company, on allegations that the company made people think a virus was on their computer and asked for money to fix it.
The Attorney General’s Office filed a suit in May against Johnson & Johnson, saying the pharmaceutical giant didn’t fully explain risks from a vaginal mesh-implant product.
Consumer-protection lawsuits generally don’t go to trial, said Josh King, chief legal counsel at lawyer review website Avvo who formerly worked on consumer-protection cases in California. He expects Comcast and the state to resume negotiations after the dust settles.
“The state is going to use all the tools at its disposal,” he said. “Pretty much every state’s attorney general is not above using the lever of public opinion in order to get better results.”
King added that customer-service improvements is likely top of mind for Comcast given its reputation among customers