The definitive guide to getting your cable or wireless provider to stop ripping you off

Courtesy: Lee Bryant
Courtesy: Lee Bryant

Do you hate your cable company? Is your wireless service provider ripping you off? You’re not alone. From poor service to overbilling, cable and wireless providers scrape the bottom of the barrel for customer satisfaction. So how do some people manage to hold their provider accountable, or even get a good deal?

Here are the top 13 tricks they’re using:

 

1. Turn off auto-billing

Telecom giants are facing record-breaking fines for misconduct against their own customers. In May 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that Verizon and Sprint would pay $158 million to settle mobile cramming investigations. In June, the FCC announced it was slapping AT&T with a $100 million fine for throttling its customers’ “unlimited” data.  

Having your cable bill automatically deducted from your checking account may be convenient, but it can be a headache when you’re a victim of these or similar schemes. Having to write a check or log in to your account each month lets you scrutinize your bill and take note of questionable charges.

If you set-and-forget auto-billing, you might never notice unauthorized charges. Even if you do, it may be harder to dispute them than if you had caught them right away. Many providers purport to disclaim liability for bogus charges that you don’t catch quickly—sometimes just 30 days!

What’s more, you have more leverage disputing a charge you haven’t paid yet than trying to get money back. There’s a reason it’s said that “possession is nine tenths of the law.” If you’ve already paid the fraudulent charges, send David to demand your money back in 5 minutes.

 

2. Record your call

Sad to say, an AT&T insider’s account of rampant consumer fraud in the company’s call center came as no surprise to us at David. Imagine how much more honest the reps would be if they knew they were being recorded.

Recording your call with customer service can help enforce promises that they might otherwise break. If a customer service rep offered a deal or promised a refund you never got, it will be your word against theirs—unless you recorded the call.

If the service you receive is particularly awful or downright unlawful, posting the recording online may shame the company into making things right. For instance, when Comcast outrageously refused to honor Ryan Block’s cancellation notice, he recorded and published the call. It went viral, because so many people could relate to the abuse he took from the company.

The legality of recording calls varies from state to state. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers this state-by-state guide. Remember that you may not know what state your provider’s call center is located in, even if your own state does not require you to notify anyone that you are recording your call with them. Both states’ laws apply. As a rule of thumb, tell your provider you’re recording them. Doing so will also encourage them to be on their best behavior.    

So how do you record a call? Skype lets you make calls to toll-free numbers without paying a dime. And plenty of apps let you record Skype calls—just search for them. The Apple and Android app stores offer smartphone recording apps, too.

 

3. Document your contact

Whether you record it or not, taking a few minutes to document your call can save you hours down the line. Your provider may claim to be taking notes, too, but we’ve heard countless stories where the provider mysteriously loses those notes the next time you talk to them.

Be sure to write down:

  • the time and date,
  • who you talked to,
  • what they promised, and
  • any reference number they gave you.

These notes will be helpful if you later turn to the press, a regulator or small claims court for help.

 

4. Get it in writing

If the customer service rep promised you a deal or claims to have fixed a problem, ask them to send you an email to confirm what they just told you. That way you’ll have written proof if they break their promise.

If they refuse to send an email confirmation, use their online email contact form or the chat function on their website to follow up. State what the agent on the phone said, and ask them to confirm if that’s correct.

 

5. Threaten to cancel

Cable companies have an entire department in their call center dedicated to retaining customers who threaten to cancel. The retention department will likely cut you a deal to keep you as a customer.

Profits are so high for cable companies that there is a lot of room for them to negotiate. A survey by Consumer Reports found that 92% of customers who tried to negotiate with their cable company got some kind of deal.

For instance:

  • 46% received a lower rate
  • 33% received more channels
  • 16% received discounted or free equipment

So let your provider show what they’re willing to do to keep you as a loyal customer.

 

6. Escalate

If you’re getting nowhere with the phone agent, it’s time to escalate. Ask to speak with their supervisor. Ask the person to confirm that he or she actually has authority to fix your problem; according to a Comcast insider, “99 percent of the time” customers are “just talking to another customer service rep who’s pretending to be a supervisor.” If the representative lies about her authority, the company may be violating an unfair trade practices statute.

Frustrated with wasting time while you’re transferred to the supervisor? In the time you’re waiting on hold, we bet you can finish David’s 5-minute questionnaire, firing a demand letter off to your provider. And you can bet that will get escalated when it arrives U.S.P.S. Certified Mail at the company’s legal headquarters. Plus, it makes for a nice conversation starter when that “manager” finally picks up the phone.

Like the lower-level rep, the senior rep can choose how helpful to be. Put yourself in her shoes. Even if a customer’s claims are valid—which you likely don’t know right away—you’re less likely to go the extra (or even the first) mile for him if he’s nasty to you right off the bat. Unfair things your employer has done to him don’t justify his rudeness to you personally, you feel, and that hold button is just a click away.  

 

7. Hang up and try again

Got some free time on your hands? If the customer service rep simply won’t budge despite your legitimate arguments, stop wasting your time on him. Just hang up and try your luck with a different agent.

 

8. Tweet it from the rooftops

The same company that ignores your concerns in private may fawn over them in public. Companies like AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon have seen enough customer abuses go viral, they try to nip bad buzz in the bud.

Combined, the social media teams at these companies reply to thousands of critical tweets each day. Generally, they try to move the conversation to “DM” or “direct message,” that is, out of public view. But if you believe sunlight is the best disinfectant, speak up to Goliath loud and proud—and publicly.

Here are the Twitter handles for AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon support:

And here are the providers on Facebook:

We certainly can’t promise they’ll suddenly start treating you fairly, but we bet you’ll hear back from your provider promptly if you reach out over social media. And even if you don’t, you will have wasted a lot less time than you would waiting on hold with customer service.

 

9. Rope in “executive” customer service

By now, you’ve spoken with the company several times and even called them out on social media, but their customer service never ceases to disappoint. It’s time to take drastic action to get your problem solved.

Most providers have an “executive” customer service department or even an “Office of the President.” (Fancy!) These departments tend to offer higher touch service and are reserved for the squeakiest wheels. For instance, our users are often escalated to executive customer support. At David, one of us kept getting erroneous bills from AT&T until calling AT&T’s general counsel to offer an out-of-court resolution for AT&T’s misconduct.

But David isn’t the only way to get ahold of executive customer service. Sometimes it’s as simple as calling the executive herself. Here are some key contacts to get started:

 

AT&T

  • Executive support: (877) 574-8832
  • CEO Randall Stephenson: rs2982@att.com
      Corporate switchboard: (210) 821-4105
      Call and ask for the CEO
  • General Counsel David McAtee: (214) 757-3300; david.mcatee@att.com

Just in case you’re wondering how eager these folks are to hear from you: one customer was threatened with a cease and desist letter after emailing AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

 

Comcast

  • Executive support: we_can_help@cable.comcast.com
  • CEO Brian Roberts: brian_roberts@comcast.com
  • Corporate switchboard: (215) 286-1700
    Call and ask for the CEO

  • General Counsel Arthur Block: ablock@comcast.com

Comcast gives out a special phone number to politicians, journalists, and other influential people who have problems with their cable, in the hopes that they never experience typical Comcast service: (866) 671-5645. Try calling and demanding the same special treatment.

 

Time Warner Cable

  • Executive support: (212) 364-8300; twc.cotp@twcable.com
  • CEO Robert Marcus: robert.marcus@twcable.com
  • Corporate switchboard: (212) 364-8200
    Call and ask for the CEO

  • General Counsel Marc Lawrence-Apfelbaum: marc.lawrence-apfelbaum@twcable.com

 

Verizon Wireless

  • Executive support: (800) 760-4658
  • CEO Lowell McAdam: lowell.mcadam@verizon.com
  • Corporate switchboard: (212) 395-1000
    Call and ask for the CEO

  • General Counsel Craig Silliman: (908) 559-1358; craig.silliman@verizon.com

 

10. Send a notice of dispute

Some providers, including AT&T and Verizon, invite you to mail them a “notice of dispute” if you have a problem that their customer service won’t fix. If they fail to adequately address your problem after you send the notice of dispute, you can ask an arbitrator (a private judge) to weigh in. If he decides that you’re right, then you will be entitled to at least $5,000 (Verizon) or $10,000 (AT&T). Look up your provider’s customer service agreement for details.

Why would these companies put bounties on their own heads? Corporate charity? These companies have consumer agreements that require you to resolve any disputes with a private judge. The purpose of these terms was to persuade the Supreme Court to uphold these agreements that limit your legal rights. They worked. Unless you’re one of a tiny minority of consumers who have opted out (assuming your provider even allows opt-out), you’ve agreed not to participate in any class action against your provider.

You can use David’s patent-pending engine to draft and send a notice of dispute in minutes at no upfront cost (David only gets paid if you do).

For its part, Comcast’s customer agreement mentions “dispute” 29 times … but neglects to mention how to file one.

Your best bet is to write a letter to:

Comcast Corporation
Attn: Legal Department
1701 JFK Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA 19103

 

And the friendly folks at Time Warner Cable can be reached at:

Time Warner Cable
Attn: Legal Department
60 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10023

 

11. Tell a reporter

Many local news stations have investigative teams that love reporting on customers bullied by big companies. For instance, in New York City, WABC’s “7 on Your Side” offers several easy ways to share your story.

The odds of getting picked up by a national publication aren’t quite as high, but if you’ve got the material for it, give it a shot! Here are a few leaders:

 

12. Notify a regulator

Maybe you’re worried that the only thing more bureaucratic and customer-unfriendly than your cable or cell phone company is a government agency. And you might be right. But oftentimes, merely hearing that you contacted a government agency will spur a company to resolve your complaint to avoid government scrutiny. When contacting a government agency, let them know how you’ve been cheated, and the steps you’ve already taken to seek redress.

 

Federal Communications Commission

Where to start? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has federal authority to regulate cable and telephone service providers. The provider is required to respond to an FCC complaint within 30 days, so this is one complaint they can’t ignore. You can submit a complaint on the FCC’s website. Alternatively, it only takes a few minutes to submit an FCC complaint based on David’s questionnaire.

 

Federal Trade Commission

Next up in the alphabet soup is the FTC. The Federal Trade Commission’s mandate is consumer protection. For false advertising and other types of consumer deception, the FTC may be your best bet. The FTC’s online complaint form is bulkier than the FCC’s, but you can speed through it by remembering that most fields are optional.

 

Local Franchise Authority

Cable companies are also regulated by local government agencies known as “local franchise authorities” (LFAs) which set the rates that cable companies charge and make sure they’re following the law. The LFA gives the cable company permission to offer services in its jurisdiction, known as a “franchise,” after the company agrees to its terms. If your cable company isn’t playing by the rules, you can notify your LFA.

In some states, a state agency is the LFA. Usually, a county or city agency also has this power. For instance, in New York State, you can turn to the Public Service Commission. In New York City, you also have the option of filing a complaint with the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications. New York City has been on Verizon’s case for rampant violations of its franchise, so you can add your love letter to the pile.

 

State Attorney General

Every state has an attorney general elected by the people or appointed by other government officials. Your state attorney general is your state’s top law enforcement officer and is charged with enforcing its consumer protection laws. If an attorney general finds a business to be breaking the law, she has the power to sue the business on behalf of the people of that state.

While your state attorney general cannot provide you legal advice or act as your personal lawyer, she does accept complaints from the public against specific businesses. Her staff may forward your complaint to the business involved and ask them for an explanation. Often, a mere inquiry from a state attorney general will get a business to resolve your complaint.

New Yorkers can file a consumer complaint with the Attorney General Eric Schneiderman or call his consumer hotline at (800) 771-7755. He has recently investigated cable companies for misrepresenting their internet speeds and has previously obtained millions of dollars in refunds for overcharged cable customers.

 

13. Go to small claims court

Your provider may try to convince you that you’ve bargained away just about all your legal rights, but the truth is that small claims courts tend to dispense rough justice that most companies want to avoid. What’s more, they will probably realize that it’s cheaper to fix your problem than have to show up in court. Don’t be surprised if they contact you in a hurry offering to be more generous than they were before.

Filing a small claims suit costs around $20, depending on where you live and how much you’re asking for. In some places, including New York City, you can file online in a few minutes through services such as nCourt for an extra fee. You’ll be assigned an in-person hearing date to tell the judge what happened.

Bring to the hearing any documents that will help prove your case. Remember, there’s a good chance that your judge has had to deal with your provider or an equally bad one, so expect her to be sympathetic so long as you clearly and accurately explain the misconduct.

For more on how small claims court works, check out our comparison with arbitration.

 

Of course, at David, we realize that you don’t have time for every one of these steps. That’s why we make it easy for you to send a demand letter, file an FCC complaint, and post to Twitter and Facebook in minutes. If you’re tired of getting the runaround from your provider, try David today.

 

Like all David blog posts, this one offers general information rather than legal advice. It won’t necessarily be kept up-to-date, and we can’t guarantee the accuracy of third-party resources, but we’d love to hear your feedback about it.