‘This has gone beyond being funny’ — Drive-by orders, and how Comcast made me an offer I just couldn’t refuse

The package I wasn't excited to get.
The package I wasn’t excited to get.

When a company like Comcast sends you mail promising that it is going to give you something for free, I hope your first reaction is the same as mine.

“Uh-oh. What will this cost?”

And when a customer service rep *promises* you that something will or won’t happen, I hope you feel the same way I do.

“I’ll believe it when I see it. Meanwhile, can I record this?”

I recently told the tale of William Funkhouser, who received notice that he would get a new modem for free from Comcast (“At no cost to you!”) and then got a bill for $160 installation fees and an $8-a-month lease fee.  Other folks who’d received the notice, including me, were surprised to find that simply clicking on a link that appeared to offer more information seemed to automatically triggered a delivery.  Unwanted new modems, and their fees, seemed to be magically appearing around the country. After initially reporting the story, I spent two days talking with Comcast, which said Mr. Funkhouser had received the wrong email in error, that the links were working as designed, that there were no widespread complaints, and nobody was really getting boxes they didn’t want.

Reading about all this had me concerned. Since I own my own box, and I didn’t want a new one, so I contacted Comcast customer service, which said this me:

“I have double checked that no pending shipment of any modems will be sent to you Robert…, I have further double checked on your account and see here that indeed no pending order is to be sent to you..You no longer need to do anything from your end for this. So you can just feel completely relax now. I can definitely guarantee you that.”

Guess what showed up in the mail within 48 hours?

This is a bit of a meandering tale about Comcast’s ongoing efforts to push new cable modem boxes at customers, even those who repeatedly say no. I think it’s more about systems gone bad than something more sinister, though there is an element of that, too.  But it’s important because the company is right now in a controversial and incredibly important anti-trust review, as it is set to swallow up Time Warner and become an even larger company with more — dare I say, monopolistic?  — power.  Regulators should know what’s going on at Comcast’s street level. Product dumping is  a specific legal term that doesn’t apply in this situation best as I can tell, but by its more common sense definition, it’s hard to come up with an example of product dumping that’s more clear than dumping  unwanted boxes at people’s homes and then charging rent for them.

Why is Comcast trying so hard to get folks to install new modems? The boxes, called gateways, conveniently include a built-in WiFi router. Theoretically that’s nice, as it could rid your house of one box.  But these Comcast boxes also include a feature that the firm is pushing hard to deliver around the country — free hotspots for Comcast subscribers.  When you hook up these gateways, they broadcast out to the neighborhood that free WiFi is available from your box, which is why Comcast can say it offers millions of free hotspots  — what the firm calls a “neighborhood initiative.”  Comcast says that won’t detract from customers’  bandwidth and there’s no security concerns; consumers can also turn the feature off.  It’s an educated guess that Comcast is pushing the boxes so hard because that fulfills the neighborhood initiative. And if it converts a few owned-modem users into leased-modem users paying a monthly fee, that’s icing on the top.  

As with all such stories, as a reporter I am playing a bit of the blind man and the elephant game.  I know of a couple of examples of unwanted modem orders, and I was able to find a decent amount of complaints online. How widespread is the problem?  I can’t really say.

Comcast says it’s a small issue.

“You are honestly the first reporter who has called about this,” said Charlie Douglas of Comcast public relations. He assured me it wasn’t common, that Comcast replaces millions of boxes every year without incident. He said new modems are required for folks to take advantage of top speeds on Comcast’s network, and the letters should offer those who already own their own modems a clear choice between buying a new one and leasing one from Comcast. He was kind enough to track down the details of Mr. Funkhouser’s situation last week and said Funkhouser had received the offer of a free modem by accident — he received a letter intended for folks who already pay to lease a monthly box.  Douglas offered to buy Funkhouser a new modem for his trouble, but by then, Funkhouser already found a new pay TV service.

Douglas also assured me that the link/web address I had visited, which seemed over-eager to trigger a shipment to me, was functioning as designed. Comcast wants to make ordering a new modem as easy as possible, he said.  Perhaps the process could be improved, he said.  More recent versions of the notice apparently warn consumers that visiting the web page will trigger an order, apparently.

Still, it’s unlike anything I’ve every seen, There was no entering an address. There is no checking on a box. There is no confirmation page to speak of. And there’s certainly no chance to say, “Stop, I didn’t mean to do that!” It is so abrupt that I didn’t actually in my wildest dreams imagine I had ordered a new box.

In the computer virus world, there’s a concept called “drive by download” — merely visiting a page triggers download of malicious software. This is Comcast’s version of drive-by ordering.

Last week, concerned after reporting this story, I checked my Comcast account and spotted a fairly clear message:

“Great news! You have already placed an order to upgrade your current modem.”

I hopped into a chat with a Comcast customer service agent and was assured, repeatedly, that this message was in error. Here’s the relevant part:

Hazel > I am now checking on your account and bills.
Hazel > Robert, as I have verified on your account indeed you are using your own modem.
Hazel > You are not paying any equipment charges.
Hazel > Also I have double checked that no pending shipment of any modems will be sent to you Robert.
Hazel > I assure you that. With this, I highly recommend you to disregard on any email you received about this please.
ROBERT_ > What about this message on my account?
ROBERT_ > ” Great news! You have already placed an order to upgrade your current modem. Your order will be processed in approximately 24-72 hours and, if eligible, your easy to use self-install kit will be automatically shipped in approximately 2 to 4 weeks. Once your order has been processed we will send you an email confirmation. XFINITY is committed to providing you the best in-home experience. If you have any questions regarding this notification or the letter you recently received from Comcast to replace your current modem, please call us at 1-855-242-2876 or contact chat support at www.comcastsupport.com/EOS-EOL. For further information on order status, please visit our Order Status FAQ.”
Hazel > Can you tell me the date when you received this?
Hazel > Was it sent through mail or email?
ROBERT_ > This is a message on the website when I log in
ROBERT_ > I get it right now
Hazel > Thank you for providing that information.
Hazel > Robert, I have further double checked on your account and see here that indeed no pending order is to be sent to you. What I will do is to pull up the account and place the memo so that we can have it removed once it shows on the bill. You no longer need to do anything from your end for this. So you can just feel completely relax now. I can definitely guarantee you that.
Hazel > Please do disregard on email received.
ROBERT_ > OK Hazel I appreciate that, but I’m sure you are hearing from others in this situation. And I’m pretty annoyed this is going on.
ROBERT_ > Can you provide me with some kind of reference number for our discussion?
ROBERT_ > So I can make sure no fees appear on my account related to this?
Hazel > Oh sure Robert, here is our chat ID: XXXXX

Meanwhile, hours later, I had several phone calls with Douglas saying that Comcast’s modem upgrade program was functioning exactly as designed, and that there were  no complaints (he knew about). Nobody was getting unwanted boxes.

With 48 hours, a new Comcast box was sitting near my front door. Now, it’s up to me to get it back to the company somehow, and once again, make sure I’m not paying monthly fees on it.  One thing I don’t dare do is follow the Comcast customer service agent’s advice: “I highly recommend you to disregard on any email you received about this please.”

On Monday, I emailed Mr. Funkhouser to tell him I had received a drive-by modem shipment, and to follow up with him.  He had a post-script for me, too.

“I got one as well. Got it Friday afternoon.  I have yet to call and check on how to return it, and verify that I’m not being charged.  This has now gone beyond being funny,” he said.

I asked Douglas if Comcast wanted a chance to explain the shipments, and here’s what he said.

“Clearly we messed up here, Bob, and we should not have put you through this experience. I’m sorry and we will use this instance to refine our processes and improve them. Our intent was to make sure you have up to date equipment so you can get the most out of the faster Internet speeds we are rolling out in your area. Thanks for your patience and for sharing your experience with me.”

An unwanted package and a potential new fee is a mere annoyance for me, Mr. Funkhouser, and the others complaining about this online, and in truth, it’s a relatively small one. But this is a clear example of what I describe in my book, Gotcha Capitalism. Small fees, hidden agendas, pushing the customer service labor onto consumers — this is a way of doing business. That makes it a big deal.  Comcast tricked me into ordering a box and then its own customer service agents were powerless to stop the delivery, against my clearly expressed wishes.   The critical question I hope is hanging in your mind at this point:

Is this a bug, or a feature?

Are Comcast’s computers hopelessly screwed up, or are they intentionally designed to aggressively shove people into ordering things that cost money and frustrate the efforts of those trying to save money? I hope the folks weighing Comcast’s fate are asking similar questions.

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About Bob Sullivan 1524 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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