Time Warner Cable Sued Again Over Sneaky Hidden Fees…By Plaintiff Not Seeking Monetary Damages

from the new-low-rates dept

For some time now broadband providers have taken a page out of the banking playbook and hitting consumers with sneaky, below-the-line fees for TV and broadband service. Whether it’s the use of “regulatory recovery fee” (a bogus fee designed to sound like it’s government-mandated to misdirect blame) or an entirely pointless and nonsensical fee like CenturyLink’s “Internet Cost Recovery Fee,” these surcharges exist for one purpose: they let the ISP advertise one price, then charge something dramatically different.

You’d be hard pressed to find any regulator willing to crack down on this practice, leaving a rotating crop of lawsuits as the closest ISPs get to seeing actual punishment for such behavior. A few years ago Time Warner Cable was sued for false advertising and deceptive business practices after promotional rates wound up being significantly larger once the customer bill came due. While that suit still stumbles forward, Time Warner Cable (and new owner Charter) have just been hit with another, similar suit, this time more specifically focused on the company’s use of “broadcast TV fees” and regional sports network fees.

The plaintiff in this case isn’t seeking any monetary damages; the complaint itself going to great lengths (pdf) to point out how these kinds of deceptive charges now account for more than 20% of Charter’s revenues. The case spends a lot of time focusing on the now-industry-standard “broadcast TV fee,” which tries to take the cost of programming and bury a portion of it below the line:

“In March 2014, TWC began utilizing a shady backdoor way to increase prices to its prospective and current television service subscribers, while continuing to advertise and promise the same flat lower monthly rates for its service plans. Rather than implementing a top-line price increase for its advertised television service or bundled service plans – which would have been noticed by its prospective and current customers – TWC instead kept the advertised price the same and hid the price increase in a newly invented and inadequately disclosed ?Broadcast TV Fee.?

You might recall that Comcast, when also sued for this exact same fee, tried to claim that taking the cost of business and hiding it below the line was just its attempt at being “transparent” with the company’s customers. And of course once this fee is implemented it quickly soars — in Time Warner Cable’s case having tripled in just three years to an additional $6.05 per month. These fees not only let companies falsely advertise a lower price, it also allows them to falsely crow about how they haven’t raised rates in “X” years, even if they’re technically raising rates pretty much constantly.

And while the FCC had been pondering a “nutrition label” for broadband & TV services that would have required ISPs be more clear about pricing, that program was voluntary and, like so many recent FCC initiatives, isn’t particularly likely to see much attention under a Trump Presidency.

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Companies: time warner cable

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Comments on “Time Warner Cable Sued Again Over Sneaky Hidden Fees…By Plaintiff Not Seeking Monetary Damages”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Easy fix

Simply rule that any mandatory ‘additional fees’ that aren’t included in the base price mean that the price presented is fraudulent, and hit the company for five times the difference between advertised and actual price for each customer affected, on top of a refund to the customers for the difference.

As an example, say TWC was advertising Service A at $10/month, except there was a mandatory fee attached that added $5 to that, boosting the price for the service to $15/month, and one million customers were currently under this plan/con. TWC would be required to refund each customer $5 each, and then pay a $25 million penalty fine for false advertising.

Want companies to stop running cons like this, hit them where it really hurts, their profits, and hit hard so the next time they consider trying it again the memory of the previous penalty is more than enough to convince them to play as honest as they can.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Easy fix

Simply rule that any mandatory ‘additional fees’ that aren’t included in the base price mean that the price presented is fraudulent

People have been pointing out that these fees are not required by the government, but in most countries it wouldn’t be relevant anyway: such fees/taxes still need to be included in advertised prices. It’s not like the companies don’t know about these taxes. I’m surprised they haven’t tried billing their employee payroll taxes, gas taxes, etc. to the customers.

timmaguire42 (profile) says:

What doesn't have hidden fees these days?

Fuel surcharges on airplanes (because apparently the airline didn’t anticipate needing fuel when it set its prices), half a dozen line items on your phone bill, your cable bill. Buying a car? Good luck getting it for the agreed-upon price. Dealer delivery fee? Seriously?

Hidden charges are everywhere. Supposedly we have laws against false advertising, but one would never know it doing business in this country.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What doesn't have hidden fees these days?

Fuel surcharges on flights came into existence because volatile oils prices meant that they could not predict the fuel bill when they set the ticket price, even when the ticket was for a flight on the next day.

That doesn’t mean they’re not misleading or illegal. Airlines could buy the fuel a day or a month in advance. They could buy futures based on their predictions. They could advertise a higher price and give a fuel discount. They could say your ticket will cost e.g. "between $120 and $140 depending on fuel price" or "$110 + the spot price of 10 kg fuel on flight day".

For all I know as a customer, my pilot could get a raise the day before we fly. Or maybe the plane will need some unscheduled maintenance. Any business has similar things (maybe my plumber’s truck breaks down), but they need to be held to their advertised prices.

Spammy McSpamface says:

Re: What doesn't have hidden fees these days?

I have a feeling this is a USA problem… where I am (UK) you pretty much pay what is stated up front, esp. in the retail and service provision arenas. ISP’s can currently hide line-rental fees, but there’s legislation coming through that will thwart even this.

The trade world can be a bit frustrating, for example whether VAT (20%) is inclusive/exclusive…

Anonymous Coward says:

Monetary damages

The plaintiff in this case isn’t seeking any monetary damages

You don’t mention why, but the linked article explains it and it’s related to something that comes up often on Techdirt: monetary damages have to go through arbitration, but the customer agreement says requests for injunctions must go through an actual court.

Padpaw (profile) says:

Let it go, neither candidate was for the people they are only in it for themselves. So in regards to that last line you would be saying the same thing if Hillary had won.

Yes we know you are unhappy clinton lost. let’s stop lamenting it and just focus on the issues at hand.

I wasn’t going to say anything about this bias I have noticed, save for that last line which wasn’t needed in an article about time warner cable cheating their customers as usual.

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