Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has amended his lawsuit against Comcast after finding that the cable giant deceived customers more than he expected.
The lawsuit, a first-of-its-kind in the country, originally alleged that Comcast engaged in more than 1.8 million individual violations of the Washington Consumer Protection Act related to its Service Protection Plan (SPP), a monthly fee that covers maintenance of in-home wiring for Xfinity TV, internet and voice, and troubleshooting for customer-owned equipment.
After further investigation, which included an analysis of sample customer calls, Ferguson is now seeking more penalties for Comcast’s alleged behavior.
In today’s news release, the attorney general’s office said that “Comcast may have signed up more than half of all SPP subscribers without their consent,” and in some cases charged customers for the SPP plan after telling them it was “free.”
“This new evidence makes clear that Comcast’s conduct is even more egregious than we first realized,” Ferguson said in a statement. “The extent of their deception is shocking, and I will hold them accountable for their treatment of Washington consumers.”
In a statement, Comcast said the new claims were “largely based on a flawed methodology and assumptions.”
“We strongly disagree with the Attorney General’s new claims,” Marianne Bichsel, vice president of external affairs for Comcast’s Washington region, said in a statement. “The Service Protection Plan gives those consumers who choose to purchase it great value by covering virtually all service charges over 99% of the time. The Attorney General’s new assertions are largely based on a flawed methodology and assumptions, and today’s press conference misrepresented the facts. In fact, the court flatly rejected the AG’s mischaracterization of Comcast’s routine handling of agent call records. We will continue to vigorously defend this in court.”
After a King County Superior Court judge ordered Comcast to provide past sales calls, the AG’s office analyzed a random sample of conversations between Comcast and 150 Washington customers, finding that the company did not mention the SPP to “nearly half” of the 150. It alleges that Comcast signed up customers for the SPP even when they rejected it; for 20 percent of the sample calls, Comcast “deceptively failed to disclose the SPP” and in some cases said that it was added to accounts for “free.”
“The Attorney General’s Office alleges this pattern of deception is a systemic issue throughout Comcast’s marketing and ‘sale’ of the SPP, and represents potentially tens of thousands of new violations of the Washington state Consumer Protection Act,” today’s news release notes.
The AG’s office said that Comcast initially refused to provide recordings because it was “burdensome.” After the judge ordered Comcast to provide calls, the company deleted 90 percent of the samples the AG’s office had requested.
Here’s Comcast’s statement in regard to the deleted calls allegation:
“As confirmed by the court, any accusation that Comcast deleted calls because of this investigation is just plain wrong,” Comcast said in a statement. “In fact, we gave the AG over 4,500 call recordings and they have only listened to 150 of them.”
Comcast also added that “our customers can sign up for our protection plan through calls, technician visits, in stores or online. So it makes no sense to base a case on what is or isn’t said on certain calls. This case is an overreach. And note that today, we send email confirmations to every single customer who signs up for that service.”
Ferguson originally was seeking a full restitution for the $73 million paid by approximately 500,000 SPP subscribers in Washington, in addition to penalties for violations of the CPA. Now he is “seeking substantially more”; the AG’s office also noted that Comcast increased the monthly price of the SPP from $4.99 to $5.99 in 2016, just before Ferguson filed the original lawsuit.
In October 2016, Comcast filed a motion that called the AG’s lawsuit a “profound mischaracterization of Comcast’s actual business practices.”
Comcast is involved in a separate battle with Wave Broadband, a Kirkland, Wash.-based competitor who filed a suit with the FCC against Comcast this week over “unfair business practices.”
Here is a copy of the amended lawsuit from King County Superior Court.