Attorney General Bob Ferguson has amended his lawsuit against Comcast to include new evidence revealing even more deceptive conduct than previously alleged.
Ferguson had already filed a $100 million lawsuit against the cable television and internet giant in King County Superior Court in August of 2016. The suit asserts Comcast misrepresented the scope of its Service Protection Plan (SPP) as part of more than 1.8 million violations of Washington’s Consumer Protection Act (CPA).
More than half a million Washingtonians subscribed to the SPP since 2011, paying at least $73 million to Comcast for the service plan from 2011 through the end of 2015.
A sample of recorded calls between SPP subscribers and Comcast representatives obtained by the Attorney General’s Office reveal that Comcast may have signed up more than half of all SPP subscribers without their consent. Comcast deceived consumers even when mentioning the SPP, telling them the SPP plan was “free” when they signed up, when in fact, Comcast would automatically charge them every month after the first month.
“This new evidence makes clear that Comcast’s conduct is even more egregious than we first realized,” Ferguson said. “The extent of their deception is shocking, and I will hold them accountable for their treatment of Washington consumers.”
Sample of customer calls reveals massive deception
In May 2017, King County Superior Court Judge Timothy Bradshaw ordered Comcast to provide the Attorney General’s Office with “telephone calls that exist in which [Comcast] sold the SPP to Washington consumers.” In response to the court order, Comcast turned over to the Attorney General’s Office recordings of calls between Comcast and 1,500 Washington consumers whom Comcast signed up for the SPP.
The Attorney General’s Office analyzed a random sample of recorded sales calls between Comcast and 150 Washingtonians. Comcast did not even mention the SPP to nearly half the sample. Additional consumers in the sample explicitly rejected the SPP, but Comcast signed them up anyway. Consequently, Comcast enrolled more than half of these subscribers without their consent.
Even when Comcast actually mentioned the SPP on the sales call before signing consumers up for the SPP, Comcast continued to engage in deception. Comcast deceptively failed to disclose the SPP was a monthly recurring charge to 20 percent of the Washingtonians in the sample. Rather, Comcast often told subscribers the SPP was added for “free” to their account.
According to Comcast’s own data, more than 75 percent of SPP subscribers sign up via the telephone. Comcast operates call centers in Washington state, Colorado, Minnesota and Texas, as well as throughout the world in the Philippines, Mexico and Guyana. Comcast paid call center staff up to $5 for every SPP sale they made.
Comcast does not instruct its employees to send customers any information about the SPP via email, text message, mail, or refer the customer to Comcast’s website while the call is occurring and the customer is considering whether to enroll in the SPP. Rather, Comcast only provides oral representations about the SPP.
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.
Deleted call recordings impede investigation
Comcast’s refusal to produce call recordings has been an ongoing issue.
In June 2015 the Attorney General’s Office sent Comcast a Civil Investigative Demand that required Comcast to preserve these call recordings between Comcast representatives and Washingtonians who purchased the SPP.
After filing the lawsuit in August 2016, the Attorney General’s Office renewed its request for these call recordings. Comcast refused to provide them, arguing that to do so would be burdensome. Consequently, the Attorney General’s Office asked the court to compel Comcast to produce a sample of these call recordings.
Still Comcast refused to produce the recordings. Comcast responded to the Attorney General’s motion to compel production of call recordings by again arguing it would be burdensome to review and provide them. In a brief to the court, Comcast estimated it would take “approximate 8,500 reviewer hours” to produce these calls.
Only after Judge Bradshaw ordered Comcast to comply in May 2017 did Comcast admit it had already deleted 90 percent of the calls the Attorney General’s Office had been requesting as part of its investigation. Comcast deleted tens of thousands of calls some time after the Attorney General’s Office demanded Comcast preserve the recordings and before telling the court it would take more than 8,000 hours to produce them.
The Attorney General’s Office filed a motion asking Judge Bradshaw to levy sanctions against Comcast for discarding potential evidence while under investigation.
In August 2017, Judge Bradshaw awarded the state approximately $13,000 in attorney fees and costs incurred in connection with the motion for sanctions. Judge Bradshaw reserved ruling on whether to impose further sanctions.
Despite Comcast’s deletion of recordings, through Judge Bradshaw’s court order, the Attorney General’s Office obtained the sample of call recordings that reveals additional unfair and deceptive practices.
New evidence substantially expands original $100 million-plus lawsuit substantially
Ferguson’s original 2016 lawsuit asserts Comcast violated the CPA to all of its nearly 1.2 million subscribers in Washington state. The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation — though the SPP is a nationwide program.
When filing his lawsuit, Ferguson announced he is seeking full restitution for the $73 million paid by SPP subscribers in Washington state. He announced he is also seeking penalties for violations of the CPA for a total of more and $100 million to hold Comcast accountable. The CPA allows a penalty of up to $2,000 per violation.
With this new evidence of these significant additional violations, Ferguson is seeking substantially more.
Shortly before Ferguson filed his lawsuit, Comcast increased the monthly price of the SPP from $4.99 to $5.99. The cost of the SPP has tripled since 2011.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Rupert and Assistant Attorneys General Daniel Davies and Seann Colgan are handling the case for Washington.
If Washington consumers believe Comcast added the SPP to their account without their consent, they should file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office by going to www.atg.wa.gov and clicking on the “file a complaint” button on the homepage.
Comcast vigorously denies wrongdoing and claims Ferguson is misusing and misrepresenting information.
“We strongly disagree with the Attorney General’s new claims,” said Marianne Bichsel, vice president of external affairs for Comcast’s Washington Region. “The Service Protection Plan gives those consumers who choose to purchase it great value by covering virtually all service charges over 99 percent 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 … As confirmed by the court, any accusation that Comcast deleted calls because of this investigation is just plain wrong. In fact, we gave the AG over 4,500 call recordings and they have only listened to 150 of them.”