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My mom and dad’s house might explode, but Comcast wants its cable box back (sethclifford.me)
69 points by wheelerwj on Nov 1, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

I know this is going to be unpopular, but...

Comcast is a business, and their goal is to make ever increasing profit. Yes it's horrible your family and hundreds of others lost everything due to a natural disaster, but that's not Comcast's fault or problem. When you signed up for service from them, I'll bet it's in the fine print that you are responsible for returning the cable box.

If it got stolen, that's not Comcast's problem.

If your hot water service burst and spilled water all over the cable box, that's not Comcast's problem.

This is the world we live in. You can't choose to have the benefits of cheap cable, then complain when the company wants to keep making profit, and enforces a contract you signed.

EDIT: To be clear, I personally hate that this is how the world works, but I accept the reality that it's true.

"Comcast is a business, and their goal is to make ever increasing profit."

And part of that is Brand Management AKA not looking like dicks after a hurricane level event and adding to people's misery.

Brand management is only important when you have a choice of service providers. It's not like you can switch your cable service from Comcast to RCN or Time Warner if you want to. They already bribed the appropriate government officials to ensure that that is not possible. And now they want $500 for their $39 cable box and there's nothing you can do about it.

(You might write to the state's attorney general's office. I'm sure enough complaints will result in a token slap on the wrist, if that makes you feel any better.)

It might be fun to let them drag you into court and see what happens if they demand USD 500 for their ancient Motorola 4100 Surfboard, considering that today a new, more capable modem is less that USD 100. I would take the chance.

Most likely they would just put the unpaid bill on your credit report and move on, leaving you with tarnished credit and no recourse.

The usual procedure about disputed debts applies.

Sure, and the credit bureaus will not side with you. Because you actually do owe the debt.

That is what they say. You say that the modem wasn't worth USD 500 when it was new and certainly isn't worth that much after five years of depreciation. In a civilized society, when two people disagree they go before the judge. If the judge says you owe the debt, then you do. If he says you do not, then you don't.

Can someone explain where the people defending iffy business practices are coming from? Has no one here rented from a shady landlord who tried to charge you $$$ for stains on the ten-year-old stained carpet that was already worthless when you moved in, and the practice didn't appear indefensible then?

The credit bureaus have sided with me every time I've made a dispute.

really? I did not even know this was a thing? do you have examples? can i pm?

And the procedure will ask them if you indeed owe them, find out that you do indeed owe them this amount, and uphold the debt.

Actually, the task of Brand Management would be to compare the potential costs of thousands of people's equipment against the potential cost from a fewer bloggers' online complaints.

Um, they are doing pretty well in terms of brand management or as I like to call it: "no sir, that service is called Xfinity now."

No, it's not the world we live in. Comcast is fully capable of making adjustments in specific cases, and a loss of a bunch of cable boxes wouldn't bankrupt them. Nobody says Comcast should abandon their rules and just gift their boxes to everybody. But exercising some humanity in exceptional situations is not contrary to business. The cost of those boxes probably won't even register given Comcast volumes.

I understand the OP probably spoke to some low-level grunts who might not be able to bend the rules even if he wanted. And the only way to solve this might be to escalate it to the level in Comcast that is allowed to think. But it definitely not "how the world works" - it's just how the Comcast works, and that's bad for them if it does. Business and profit is not contrary to having basic human decency towards your customers - actually, it is usually goes better if you do.

In true capitalism you have competition, and in many cases Comcast is a monopoly when it comes to cable television — so that really makes them a utility. And like any other utility (phone, gas or electric) that means there needs to be some government regulation to balance things out.

So yes they're a business and of course they should make money, but that needs to be balanced out by the needs of their customers. It might be overdue for cable companies and the phone companies to be broken up. In fact it might be a good idea that they be broken up every ten years or so given their immediate power over consumers.

How breaking up would help? Instead of one huge Comcast you'd have 1000 regional mini-comcasts, with the same people and same rules. If some region has only one cabling network, they'd have only one mini-comcast controlling it, and so nothing would change for them - except for mini-comcast eating up the costs of natural disaster actually may be a huge hit, unlike Comcast today for which it would cost them less than salad dressings on annual employee appreciation barbecue (provided they have one).

How breaking up would help?

They would need to be broken up the same way that AT&T was broken up back in the day. The breakups allowed for the sharing of infrastructure by various competitors so that you could call Sprint, MCI, or whomever for (at very least) your long distance service and possibly your local service as well.

You only really competition if you can choose your cable provider wherever you live.

Obviously breaking it into 1000 mini-comcasts, like AT&T, wouldn't, by itself, do anything useful. I think the unstated assumption is that in addition to breaking up Comcast, you'd also break the franchise agreements in order to allow competing cable companies within each territory.

It's very difficult for a start-up cable company or ISP with an innovative product, say, a la carte pricing, to get going because Comcast can undersell them (or offer the same innovative product) for as long as it takes for the start-up to burn through their capital. They can do this because 1) The start-up's limited capital prevents them from opening in every market at once; and 2) Comcast's national presence allows them to use the profits from one region to subsidize service in the region where the start-up is competing. It's probably cheaper to just buy Comcast than to try to beat them in a race to the bottom.

Dude, what? The whole point is that the little comcasts could offer fiber to other areas in order to gain subscribers.

I agree with everything you just said.

That doesn't change the reality of today.

People have a right to expect better behavior. No, Comcast doesn't have to care, but the other side of the coin is that customers have a right to make a big stink if and when a company pulls some bullshit like this. I'm not sure we can have a productive conversation about much of anything if a natural disaster on this scale is for all practical purposes equivalent to a burst water pipe.

And, as a counterexample: I got an email from PNC Bank saying that they weren't going to charge people for overdrafts and suchlike from now until November 5th, on account of Sandy. It's as if this particular corporation is comprised of people, some subset of whom sat down for two seconds and thought about something other than the bottom line.

Note that even if PNC are motivated by not pissing people off or garnering good will, I'd still call this working as intended. Without an incentive to behave well, the temptation to revert to behavior like Comcast's is all too easy.

If you want to look at it from a purely cold and objective light, then you are correct. It's true that it's not Comcast's problem, that there's a contractual clause, and that Comcast's role as a business is to maximize profit. However, it's also really bad public relations to look completely insensitive to hurricane victims, and that can affect the bottom line. The Consumerist is just changing the coefficients of the cost-benefit equation of eating the cable box cost vs. a public relations fiasco.

Yes, and customers are entitled to complain about obnoxious behaviour, are entitled to choose not to give their business to such companies, and are entitled to publicise such obnoxious behaviour.

Comcast might not be legally at fault, but I have no doubt that they are ethically. When companies behave unethically, it ought to be sung from the rooftops - that is how you put a cost on unethical behaviour.

If you tried to do this as a smaller local business however, your resulting reputation would put you out of business pretty fast.

>You can't choose to have the benefits of cheap cable, then complain when the company wants to keep making profit, and enforces a contract you signed.

You are damn right I can, and I damn well will and I will be as public as possible about it.

This is the world we live in.

No - the world we live in takes PR into account, though I'm still not sure that matters in this case - because: monopoly

As a business, Comcast can forsee this sort of risk, much better than any individual customer could, and insure against it.

The costs still get passed on to customers, but are distributed among all customers, are not incurred as an additional fee or cost at a time of hardship, and Comcast's size and negotiating power against an insurance company would almost certainly result in more favorable rates and terms than an individual could secure.

To say nothing of the brand management issues which would be avoided.

Moreover, people don't want to pay Comcast for the modem, but I guarantee you everyone who remembers that they lost a modem will declare it with their insurance company.

A business goal is to make ever increasing profit, but that does not absolve them from unethical behavior. After all, most mobsters viewed themselves as a company, just out for profit.

This is when society should step in. There should be consumer laws (and some countries has those) that protect the consumer in cases of service contracts and natural catastrophes. For example in Sweden, such protection exist which covers both natural catastrophes, and wars (Lightning strikes are excluded).

Let's be clear, Comcast is not cheap cable. There are many places in the world that have much faster internet access for less.

> You can't choose to have the benefits of cheap cable, then complain when the company wants to keep making profit, and enforces a contract you signed.

Cheap? $120+ a month for television is not cheap.

I said that thinking of the billions of people on the earth that can't get cable at any price.

The reality of things is that there are no rules.

Also, insurance would cover the fees, right?

hmmm... and just how did we get to the "world we live in"?

A hurricane just blew threw, your neighborhood has just been declared a disaster area, your house is about to explode, and you're freaking out over a return charge that you haven't even been billed yet? IMO, Comcast isn't the only ones with their priorities out of whack here.

If you do eventually get a bill for not returning the cable box, just go to the local Comcast office (the place you were supposed to return the boxes to) after things have settled down, and explain the situation to a local employee who actually has some discretion in how to respond to the situation. I'm sure you won't be the only one in the area with this problem. Expecting call center reps thousands of miles away, who have probably heard every variant of 'the dog ate my cable box' story at least twice, to waive the charge immediately, without any proof, and no directive from higher up, is asking a bit much. I'm guessing the Comcast staff in the hurricane zone have a few more pressing concerns right now than adjusting bills that haven't gone out the door yet.

I was coming here to post the exact same thing. Perfectly summed up - why are they stressing themselves out about such an inconsequential thing right now?

Yes Comcast handled it badly, but if I were worried my house was about to be destroyed, I would not be thinking about disconnecting the cable box. (In fact I have had my house flooded, and I can tell you nothing like this ever even crossed my mind).

There's a follow-up by The Consumerist. Once they got in contact with Comcast, Comcast predictably changed their tune: http://consumerist.com/2012/11/01/comcast-knows-that-your-st...

Right, just as I said above - once it is escalated to the level where people are allowed to think it becomes completely possible to be flexible.

Consumerist performed the escalation.

Heh I'm sure they realized the guy posted an article on a website and that if they didn't do something ASAP their Comcastic reputation would become even more Comcastic.

If your toaster is destroyed in a hurricane, Target does not replace it. If your car is destroyed in a hurricane, Honda does not replace it. So if your cable box is destroyed in a hurricane, I don't see why Comcast should be expected to eat the cost of replacement. You're renting an item with the express provision that failing to return the item means you've bought it. Expecting Comcast to provide free hurricane insurance for all their cable boxes just doesn't make sense--it's like expecting the furniture store to refund all the money you paid for the furniture in the house.

But it's not "their" cable box. It's Comcast's cable box. IMO, it would be fine for Comcast to charge for damage due to negligence or intentional vandalism, but not due to circumstances beyond the homeowner's control. Do they charge if the box is damaged by lightning, e.g.? Certainly my old cable company didn't, but I don't know about Comcast (I got rid of the cable after Comcast bought the company I had).

Interesting. I see the box as rented equipment, temporarily owned by the homeowner. Anything that happens to the box during the rental period is something the renter is responsible for. I'm actually surprised that your old cable company replaced the lightning-damaged box.

But judging from the response here, clearly lots of other people think of the box as a part of Comcast's infrastructure that happens to be portable. And from that point of view, it makes sense for Comcast to eat the cost--just like they'll eat the cost of their cable lines being torn up in the hurricane.

And I suppose that if the vast majority of people have the latter view when they're signing up for cable, then Comcast should probably change their policies to fit that model, and just charge for loss or damage caused by the user.

I pay the monthly fee for my dsl modem because it comes with insurance and if the box breaks, which they seem to do, I don't eat the $100 dollar or more fee for a new one, the phone company ships one.

Now it really depends on how it is done but when I had comcast I did the same thing and I was always able to get someone on the line to replace it on their dime because of the monthly fees. Granted I never have had a hurricane blow through an office I think most of the time they are willing to work with you.

"Anything that happens to the box during the rental period is something the renter is responsible for."

Most rental contracts (for anything) that I've seen make the owner responsible for normal wear and tear and so-called "Acts of God".

If you rent an apartment, you're not generally responsible for the rebuilding costs if it gets blown away in a hurricane or tornado.

Here's an example lease:


If it was a leased car it wouldn't be "their" car either, but it would be ridiculous to expect the company you are leasing it from to eat the cost of the car simply because it was destroyed by a natural disaster. While you are in possession of the property it is your own decision to insure it or not. In this case it many (almost all?) forms of home insurance would cover the cost of the destroyed cable box.

If Comcast stuck a mandatory $3/month "cable box insurance" fee on everyone's bill people would be posting about how they are money grubbing assholes, but if they are effectively insuring all of their leased equipment against loss then they are doing exactly that except just not putting it as a separate line item on the bill.

It probably depends on how the contract is written, and I am not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that default contract law is that the owner (not the renter) is responsible for "Acts of God". The renter has the duty to treat the property with reasonable care, but isn't responsible for normal wear and tear or disaster scenarios.

No doubt their homeowner's insurance will cover this cost along with everything else. There's no particular reason for Comcast to eat this cost, although they probably could be more diplomatic about it.

I posted this because while I was not affected by Sandy, I did lose my apartment to a fire a few years ago and had to deal with the same thing from Direct TV. I got send to collections for the cost of the satellite, the receivers, and the failure to maintain the last part of the contract even though I was homeless.

I am a business person and I understand that profitability is the bottom line, but these companies make billions of dollars and this is unacceptable behavior from community members. Those rules and return policies are put into place to prevent theft, not to handle disasters, personal or national.

On the other hand, imagine the effort Comcast would have to make to verify each such claim. If they don't verify such claims, I bet they will get at least a hundred scammers for every real claim, once their leniency becomes known.

In this case, the only thing I see is that this may not be the best moment to bring that message, but I also wonder how anybody would even think of giving Comcast a call so short after this happened to them.

haha, that was my first thought too. But thinking back, I was on the phone within a day or two... I guess we all deal with stress differently.

"Honey, the house is on fire..."

"I better call Comcast and cancel internet for the winter."

I don't see a problem with that. If party 'A' has something belonging to party 'B'. Just because the property is inaccessible or destroyed doesn't suddenly evaporate's 'A' responsibility for returning it.

Comcast should provide a grace period 30-60 days, but that's about it.

Agreed. Not sure why people see a problem with this simple principle.

It's not like they would be ok with Comcast saying "We're having cash flow issues, so we took the liberty of charging you double this month"

Not in this particular case, but sometimes I feel like "the customer is always right" has become a license to steal for some people.

Why this is justified on Comcast's part: the equipment is rented, if it's lost due to a natural disaster then that's still on the renter unless you've insured for that loss otherwise. Note that it would make sense for Comcast to offer such insurance as a service fee, although it's likely this is covered through homeowners insurance.

Why this is dumb on Comcast's part: this is day 2? post Hurricane and now Comcast's greed is front and center in the national press. This is not smart, especially considering the relatively small amount of money at stake here. How much does Comcast spend on advertising? With this move they've basically erased the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in advertising for far less value in return. No company wants a PR failure of this magnitude. Especially considering that Comcast is already one of the most hated companies in existence.

This was not a good move for Comcast and they are going to lose far more than they could possibly gain.

I think we have to be really careful about anthropomorphizing companies.

The CEO has to make rules, one of which is that they charge fees for all boxes so that people have no incentive to try to game the system. The rule must be consistent across the board. He or she also knows that the people implementing this rule will be low-paid and are not the right people to make the choice about what excuse to accept.

Further, he or she (the CEO) realizes that if your house is destroyed, you're going to put in an insurance claim, including possibly for any lost property belonging to services contracted to the house.

For this reason, they're not cutting you a break. They need a consistent policy that doesn't have any loopholes. It's not much different than computer security, actually. You eliminate ambiguity and make upstream rules.

That isn't to say it doesn't suck. Then again, it's a drop of suck in an ocean of suck. I've seen the pictures of some of the devastation and my heart goes out to the people there. If I thought they needed my services, I would give them a discount.

This brings me to the meat of this rambling post: go Consumerist style but instead of complaining to Comcast, offer it up to them as an opportunity. You mentioned how they often go out and do community initiatives. Suggest to them that they reach out to the recently devastated and offer a free cable hook-up and services with monthlies at the regular rate. You never know, it could work out for them, since all the devastated homes will need some kind of internet, and whoever makes it easiest may win over the harried homeowners.

Comcast boxes are such a ripoff. They used to be $3/mo, and now they're at $7/mo. A brand new DOCSIS3 modem is less than $90[1], and the ones most people rent are bottom of the barrel DOCSIS2 modems.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Motorola-SB6121-SURFboard-DOCSIS-Cable...

Of course, $7 a month is a bargain not to have to call customer service and attempt to provision your own equipment.

Indeed. A new cable modem is less than USD 100, the expected lifetime is 5 years, and it depreciates over that time.

What that blog post does not say is just how much Comcast have charged their subscribers for the lost modems, but one would think it is more than the present value.

Comcast's position is not unreasonable here. If your car is destroyed in a flood or accident, you still owe on the payments.

So the question is - was the supervisor at fault or was the system set up in such as way as to tie the hands of the supervisor so he was unable to make any other decision?

Of course there are shades of grey inbetween but I'd be fascinated to know exactly where the blame lies inside Comcast.

One word: insurance

Why would comcast let them off? Is the bank going to let you off on the payments of your home or car if it gets destroyed? No, of course not... it will be covered by insurance. Why would comcast be any different?

Because it's their box. Not yours.

At the same time... Verizon (never used them, was on T-Mobile, now AT&T and TWC for cable) - http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-57543855-94/verizon-offers-...?

"Verizon offers phone charging and free calling for Sandy victims"

Yes, easy way to get more customers to sign for you in the future... Comcast just failed there...

Curiously, why in the world wouldn't Comcast have insurance on equipment the rent out? Sure, primary coverage may/should be with the renter, but why in the world won't they have secondary coverage in the event of total loss (including death of the renter, etc.)

Could it simply be that at the rates they charge, a box is easily paid off in a couple of years, and any additional rental fees are pure profit?

This isn't the first time something like this has happened: http://www.wsfa.com/Global/story.asp?S=14672228

You would think that would have a procedure in place to address these types of situations, for good PR at least.

Exactly. The country experiences multiple such natural disasters each year, although most are much more localized.

Where it the/a reasonable policy for dealing with them?

Surely, this is an area where a little application of oft vaunted "best practices" might actually be appropriate?

(Local crews and crew management should be able to at least approximately validate the legitimacy of such claimed circumstances.)

I do not care if Comcast in business of making money or they have fiduciary responsibility to their stock holders. The timing is wrong and inappropriate esp. when people lives coule be in danger and their entire life saving is in jeopardy.

Comcast get a handle of this stupid situation.

I mostly hate the choice between 'renting' and 'buying' these boxes when you don't have any control over them and might get dragged into court for doing so.

Would homeowners insurance cover the loss?

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