Satellite services target of scrutiny in the courtroom

Posted July 26, 2009, at 8:11 p.m.

In March, Northeast CONTACT noted a number of consumer complaints about various satellite TV services. It seems Maine consumers are not alone.

Dish Network Corp. recently agreed to pay nearly $6 million to Maine and 45 other states to settle claims of deceptive and unfair sales practices. The company denies any wrongdoing but has agreed to sizable payouts and to change the way it does business.

A news release from Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says the state will receive $20,000 to be used for consumer protection work. And Maine consumers with problems may be eligible for part of the cash settlement.

If customers have unresolved complaints filed either with the state or with Dish Network since Jan. 1, 2004, they’re eligible for the restitution program. Part of the settlement requires Dish Network to send claims notices to eligible consumers.

Consumers who aren’t satisfied with the restitution offer may file a claim to be decided by a third-party claims administrator. Questions or complaints about the refund process can be sent to: Dish Network, L.L.C., Dispute Resolution Team, P.O. Box 9040, Littleton, Colo. 80120.

Maine consumers also may file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office at the following address: Attorney General’s Consumer Information and Mediation Service, 6 State House Station, Augusta 04333. Those complaints need to be received by Dec. 15 of this year.

The settlement resolves complaints about Dish Network, including:

? Misconduct of its third-party retailers and installers.

? Telemarketing calls made contrary to do-not-call rules.

? Failure to disclose rebates, credits and other offers.

? Failing to tell subscribers that equipment they purchased or leased may have been previously used or refurbished.

? Citing competitors’ price offers when goods or services were materially different.

? Charging credit cards or debiting bank accounts without adequate notice and appropriate authorization.

So that consumers having problems with DIRECTV won’t feel left out, a Superior Court judge in California ruled this month that a class action suit over early cancellation fees may proceed in that state. The case hinges on one consumer’s claim that her receiver stopped working. She says a replacement also had a problem, but DIRECTV would not resolve the problem. She canceled her service and returned the equipment, and the company charged her a $240 cancellation fee.

That case has been consolidated with another that alleges DIRECTV failed to tell customers that canceling before the end of a contract term would result in big penalty fees. There are also allegations that DIRECTV automatically extends the term of a contract if equipment needs replacing or the customer wants to make changes in programming or other services.

In a statement, DIRECTV calls its cancellation fees “lawful, fair and reasonable” and says they are fully disclosed along with other contract terms. The company had hoped to keep the California case on hold while it fought federal charges filed there and in other states.

These companies use tons of small print in legal disclaimers to try to keep complaints in check, but it appears at least some of their questionable practices are getting the attention many consumers feel they’ve deserved all along.

To file a complaint with the Consumer Information and Mediation Service, call the Maine Attorney General’s office at 626-8849 or toll-free at 800-436-2131.

The e-mail address is consumer.mediation@mainegov.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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