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Cable Boxed

Claim:   Television service providers charge tornado victims for lost equipment and early contract cancellations.

MIXTURE

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, May 2011]

As Joplin victims call Direct TV to cancel their service due to homes completely wiped off the map, they are being told to send in a box or remote control or pay a fine of $500+ to cancel service. DirectTV should be boycotted. Tell their employees to go to these former HOMES and find their remote controls...
 

Over the last couple of weeks on facebook there has been a story traveling around in various forms. The first time I saw it it involved Charter comm in the Birmingham Al area. Supposedly customers who lost their homes in the tornadoes called Charter to cancel their subscriptions and were told by Charter that unless they returned the box and remote that they would keep being charged or pay a hefty fine for the loss of the box.
 

It is going around on the web that Dish Network is requiring the victims in Joplin to either bring in their box or pay $500 to cancel their contract since they have no home or TV left to use it. Is this true?

 

Origins:   These items about television service providers requiring tornado victims to return their equipment or pay penalties began circulating shortly after several deadly tornadoes struck the U.S. between March and May 2011. Supposedly residents whose homes were destroyed by the twisters were told, upon calling their television providers to cancel their subscriptions, that they needed to either return the equipment (e.g., receivers/tuners, satellite dishes, remote controls) provided by those companies or pay hefty fees (said to be $500 and upwards) and in some cases pay additional monies for the early cancellation of their contracts.

What customers may have been told (in some cases possibly by unaware or misinformed television service reps) or required to do appears to vary from company to company. An article about an April 2011 tornado in Alabama noted of Charter Communications, for example, that:
Just after last month's storms destroyed his Pleasant Grove home, Cleon Spain had a friend call Charter Communications to have his cable service disconnected.

According to the friend, Glenda Dillashaw, a Charter representative told her that Spain would need to find his cable box or be charged $212 for its loss.

"I said, 'How are you supposed to find that?'"

The U.S. Steel retiree isn't the only storm victim who was told he'd have to pay for a cable box, according to volunteers working with the recovery effort. And while Charter says the truth is more nuanced, it doesn't rule out the possibility that storm victims could be charged for their lost set-top boxes.

Charter encourages customers to file insurance claims for the lost equipment, said Kristina Hill, a spokesman for the company. Charter will "work with" other customers, she said, which might mean forgiving all or part of the debt — or it might mean coming up with a payment plan for the lost equipment.

Indeed, as [Cleon] Spain searched in the rubble for car titles and other vital records, [his] cable box did turn up. When Dillashaw placed a second call to Charter — because a bill for the next month's service arrived — the representative told her not to worry about the box after all.

While Hill told The Birmingham News the specific response from Charter will depend on the circumstances, she said the company "will address all legitimate claims from customers in good standing and will work closely with them to remedy claims related to damaged and/or lost equipment."

"We realize that this has been a devastating life event for many of our customers," Hill said.
That same article stated of other service providers that:
Bright House Networks also expects its customers to file claims under homeowners' or renters' insurance to pay for lost or destroyed cable boxes. "That's how we normally handle it," spokesman Robert L. Smith said.

If storm victims don't have insurance, he said, decisions will have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

"For those who have lost everything, talking to a cable company is probably the last thing on their minds," Smith said. "We're not going to pressure someone for a set-top box."

Among other television services, AT&T's U-verse customers who lost their leased equipment in the storm can have it replaced at no charge, company spokeswoman Sue Sperry said.

DirecTV waives replacement costs for equipment damaged in storms if customers continue services, spokeswoman Vanessa Dunham said. If service can't be restored because of damage to the home, DirecTV offers to cancel the account and waive fees for not returning equipment, she said.
A similar article reported that several cable and satellite providers (Comcast, Dish Network, DIRECTV and Charter Communications) in Alabama had established policies for customers affected by recent tornadoes:
Comcast has notified customers in the Tuscaloosa and Huntsville areas of the following policies:

o For consumers displaced from their homes due to the storms, their service may be placed on a temporary six-month "hold" status at no cost, which enables those with voice and data services to save their telephone numbers and email addresses.

o Equipment (such as converter boxes and cable modems) that was damaged by the storm may be exchanged at the local Comcast offices at no charge. Consumers should notify Comcast if equipment was lost in the storm and cannot be recovered. Although routine policy requires that a police report or insurance claim be filed on lost equipment, that requirement is waived for six months due to the extreme nature of the extensive storm damage. Customers will not be charged for the exchange or replacement of equipment under these circumstances.

o Customers who lost service will be automatically credited for that period of time. It is not necessary to notify Comcast for this credit, which will appear automatically on customers' next bills. Customers who still do not have service after their power was restored should contact Comcast.

o Consumers may contact Comcast by calling 1-800-COMCAST. The local Tuscaloosa office is located at 1131 Whigham Place. In addition, a temporary office and communications center has been set up at Belk Center, located at 2101 Bowers Park Drive, where local residents may use free high-speed internet and make free local and long-distance calls. The Huntsville office is located at 2047 Max Luther Drive.

DISH Network has similarly announced to provide free replacement equipment and free technician calls, at no additional cost, for loss of service due to the storms. If it is necessary to disconnect service, the company agreed to waive any fees. Consumers may contact DISH Network by calling 1-800-333-3474.

DISH Network provided the following statement about its response: "Taking care of our customers who have been impacted by any disaster, including tornadoes, is our top priority. DISH Network has a disaster policy in place and works with affected customers on a case-by-case basis to determine the best solution. We normally provide several no-cost options for victims to suspend their satellite service, including a pause of service, with no equipment fees."

Ellen Filipiak, Sr. Vice President for Customer Service at DIRECTV, stated, "We join all service providers in Alabama in a sincere expression of sympathy for the people of Alabama who lost loved ones and homes in the terrible storms that hit the state last month. We are working with both our customers and employees in Alabama to help them rebuild as well as reconnect their TV services. And to ease the burden and worry for our customers who were affected by the disaster, we have suspended accounts for those who were without power, offered free service calls and have waived equipment replacement costs and all other fees. More broadly we are also providing support to all victims of the storm through the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity." Consumers may contact DirecTV by calling 1-800-531-5000.

A statement from Charter Communications comments about the storm crisis and its response. Kristina Hill, Senior Director of Communications, said "Realizing that this is a challenging time for our customers, we have waived fees for equipment that was lost, damaged, or destroyed as a result of the tornado. Charter's customer care team is standing by at 1-888-438-2427 to answer questions and to schedule service calls."
Although another article stated that March 2011 tornado victims in Tennessee were initially told by DIRECTV that they were liable for early termination and equipment return fees, it also reported that the fees were waived for those customers after follow-up calls because "the tornado zone in Greenback and Blount County had not been declared a disaster area, [so] the company was unaware of the widespread damage."

DIRECTV has recently been repeating through e-mail and its Twitter feed that rumors of tornado victims' in Joplin, Missouri, being charged $500 for lost equipment are false, stating: "This is just a rumor being spread around Facebook. We are not charging customers from Joplin to replace their boxes and we urge them to call us at 1-800-531-5000 so that we can assist them," "This is a false rumor. We're helping all tornado victims and encourage anyone affected to call in," and "We are working with customers in the affected areas. We urge those affected to call 1-800-531-5000."

Last updated:   7 June 2011

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