WASHINGTON — Washington is after Comcast, big time — the state of Washington that is.
The nation’s largest cable operator is the target of a lawsuit lodged last week by the state’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, alleging more than 1.8 million violations of Washington’s Consumer Protection Act.
Ferguson is asking for more than $100 million in restitution and fines, saying the company’s $4.99 monthly service protection plan was deceptive and that Comcast charged for services it led consumers to believe were free and did not sufficiently inform customers about the plan’s limits.
The potential total would appear to be as much as $3.6 billion, given that the state is seeking up to $2,000 for each of the alleged 1.8 million-plus violations, though Comcast was not commenting on that figure, and the AG’s press officer did not return calls for comment.
Comcast disputed the allegations and pledged to defend itself. The MSO also said it had already made some “improvement” to its disclosures, after discussions with state officials, and seemed surprised by the suit.
OTHER STATES COULD FOLLOW
Ferguson seemed to signal there could be more attention to the issue beyond his state.
“The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation — though the Service Protection Plan is a nationwide program, and many of the improper practices are used in all of Comcast’s markets,” his office said last week.
There is certainly nothing to stop other states with large Comcast footprints from looking into the policies relative to their own consumer protection laws. The California AG’s office would neither confirm nor deny it was investigating the company.
The Federal Trade Commission, which pursues deceptive and misleading business practices related to service promises and guarantees, had no comment on whether it was looking into the allegations.
One alleged transgression Ferguson signaled was key was “misleading” 500,000 consumers into spending $4.99 per month (at least $73 million total) for what his office called a near-worthless service-protection plan.
The AG’s office cited Comcast’s claim the plan was comprehensive and covered the cost of all service calls for inside wiring when it did not cover wiring inside walls, “which constitutes the vast majority of wiring inside homes.”
Comcast strongly disputes that, a company spokesperson said, saying so called wall-finished, and thus not readily accessible, wiring is “pretty rare.”
Asked to square that with the AG’s charge, she said most wiring is accessible and that Comcast “disagrees” with that characterization.
She also pointed out that Comcast worked with the AG’s office to revise and clarify the terms of the MSO’s offerings and the information on Comcast’s website so that it was “clearer and better.”
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.