After Investigating Itself, CenturyLink Proclaims There's Just No Way It Committed Billing Fraud

from the trust-and-don't-verify dept

Lawsuits have begun to pile up for broadband provider CenturyLink, after a whistleblower revealed earlier this year that the ISP had been routinely over-billing its broadband customers for years. The whistleblower, who claims she was fired after bringing the problem to company management, said the company had a multi-year habit of consistently signing customers up for services they never ordered and didn’t want. Of course that’s on top of the routinely-misleading billing practices we see at most giant broadband providers, most notably the habit of making up completely bogus fees to jack up the advertised price post sale.

The whistleblower account was followed up by lawsuits from several state attorneys general, who say they discovered ample evidence that misleading pricing and overbilling was a consistent occurrance. An investigation by Minnesota AG Lori Swanson, for example, found numerous examples where customers were overbilled — yet CenturyLink refused to fix the problem — even when customers had the ISP’s original promises in writing.

But worry not! CenturyLink last week issued a press release stating it had investigated itself, and found that company executives were completely and utterly innocent of any wrong doing. According to CenturyLink, the company constructed a “special committee” filled with CenturyLink board members, who collectively dug through 9.7 million documents, 4.3 terabytes of billing data consisting of over 32 billion billing records — and interviewed 200 current and former Company employees. They found, impressively, precisely what CenturyLink CEO Glen Post hoped they would:

“The Company accepts the Special Committee’s findings and conclusions. The investigation confirmed my long-held belief that there was no fraud or wrongdoing at the Company and that cramming was neither widespread nor condoned. However, we know there have been times when we haven’t provided our customers the experience they deserve. We have identified a number of areas where we can improve the customer experience and have already made significant progress in addressing those areas.”

That’s in stark contrast to what whistleblowers and numerous state investigations have so far discovered. So letting actual, independent third-party investigations determine guilt or innocence seems kind of important. What did the investigation find? It found that if there was a problem, it was due to the fact that CenturyLink’s billing and pricing was somehow confusing customers:

“Some of the Company’s products, pricing and promotions were complex and caused confusion, and the resulting bills sometimes failed to meet customer expectations. Additionally, limitations in the Company’s ordering and billing software made it difficult to provide customers with estimates of their bills and confirmation of service letters that reflected all discounts, prorated charges, taxes and fees.”

Of course CenturyLink would have you believe that this confusing pricing just magically materialized by itself accidentally. In reality, large ISPs consistently employ confusing pricing in order to make direct price comparisons between ISP bundles all but impossible. It’s standard practice. Centurylink also has a nasty habit of (apparently accidentally) imposing completely misleading fees to jack up the advertised price of service. Take CenturyLink’s $4 per month “Internet Cost Recovery Fee,” for example, which CenturyLink explains as such on its website:

“This fee helps defray costs associated with building and maintaining CenturyLink’s High-Speed Internet broadband network, as well as the costs of expanding network capacity to support the continued increase in customers’ average broadband consumption.”

Of course that’s bullshit, and tackling the “costs of expanding network capacity” is what your regular bill is for. What the fee does accomplish is it lets CenturyLink advertise one price, then charge something else entirely. It’s something broadband providers learned from the airline, banking, and other industries, and with limited competition, the “free market” mysteriously never auto-corrects the problem. And neither the FCC nor FTC have ever deemed this fairly blatant false advertising via bogus fees (which take many forms) worthy of serious inquiry.

And that’s with the FCC’s net neutrality rules in place, which at least required that ISPs clearly document all of this hidden nonsense to consumers at the point of sale. With those requirements about to die, and both federal and state oversight of ISPs about to be obliterated, you can expect an already-bad problem to only get worse. It’s another example of how the death of net neutrality is going to have wide-reaching negative effects that go well beyond our traditional understanding of net neutrality violations. Of course if you like being nickel and dimed by your broadband ISP, the future’s looking bright for you indeed.

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Companies: centurylink

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Comments on “After Investigating Itself, CenturyLink Proclaims There's Just No Way It Committed Billing Fraud”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“Additionally, limitations in the Company’s ordering and billing software made it difficult to provide customers with estimates of their bills and confirmation of service letters that reflected all discounts, prorated charges, taxes and fees.”

Its not a bug, its a feature.

We checked & we did nothing wrong, so stop asking to check our work. If you can’t trust us (who sneak in an extra $4 charge b/c we can) who can you trust??? Your evidence where we gave you a price in writing & we failed to honor it or our board who enjoys nice bonuses based on income….

Jerick says:

Remember we just need to trust them

Remember everything Ajit Pai has said. We just need to trust our broadband providers and everything will work out. And they’ll be transparent about everything so we can be sure they couldn’t possibly lie and are therefore clearly innocent of wrongdoing as they say. Because we can trust them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Imagine if this worked in the criminal community?

I can see it now:

“Yes your honor, there is a ton of evidence that I am a serial burglar, and that I stole all this stuff from houses all over my home town, but I did an internal investigation and determined that there was some confusion among the homeowners of the houses I supposedly broke into. The confusion is that they owned the stuff I took, because in reality it all belonged to me to begin with.”

Because essentially that is what they are saying here. Their customers were confused about the bills they were sending out but its ok because the money their customers owed is what they owed and they were just confused at the fact that they owed money to the company for products they didn’t know they had purchased.

Anonymous Coward says:

commissioned salesmen

At the root of the problem is the common practice of using commissioned salesmen, and even worst, putting them under pressure to meet never-ending sales targets. So of course they’re going to lie to make a sale so they can get paid and/or not get fired.

And just before these salesmen quit their jobs, enroll people who tell them flat-out “no” as well as people they’ve never contacted. Because by the time these involuntary customers get their bill and complain, these salesmen have cashed out their last paychecks and are long gone.

It’s not hard to figure out that a certain percentage of commissioned salesmen are always going to milk the system this way, yet companies act surprised every time it happens.

Anonymous Coward says:

But Does This Matter?

So a CenturyLink committee (founded and sponsored by CenturyLink) deemed that CenturyLink did nothing wrong. That’s corporate bullshittery 101. They issued this in a press release to accomplish what exactly? People still hate them, lawsuits will still exist, and high ranking legal people still hold solid evidence.

So they high-fived themselves. Fish swim, birds tweet, the Pope shits in the woods.

Anonymous Coward says:

I got an email from the CenturyLink "Final Billing department"

They asked for my name, but I wouldn’t give them the last 4 of my SSN.

I closed CenturyLink several months ago, so I’m pretty sure these charges that they just found have to be out of statute.

I told them to send me a bill in the mail, and then I’ll believe this is real.

They might be willing to commit wire fraud, but draw the line at mail fraud.

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