From a distance, the paper notice from Bright House Networks looked like one of those “room service please” notices you hang on your hotel room entrance. It was carelessly affixed to our front door knob one afternoon, with the hole slightly ripped, as if someone had hastily placed it there and then bolted.
“SORRY WE MISSED YOU!” it lied. “As a valued customer, we need you to know that if we do not receive payment from you within the next 48 hours, your service will be scheduled for disconnection.”
Bright House is our local cable company. I live in a modest central Florida neighborhood, and I pay all of my bills promptly, so this notice — and the threat of cutting off my service — worried me.
But the story quickly turned into the latest episode of Is This A Scam?, for several reasons. If you receive a similar notice, you might want to check it before paying. It could be scammy.
The first sign the “room service” notice wasn’t legit? It wasn’t delivered by regular mail. Why were they not using the U.S. Postal Service? Perhaps they’re wary of bumping up against federal mail fraud statutes that prohibit using the postal service to knowingly misrepresent the truth or conceal a material fact to my detriment.
The second tip-off? In addition to the $420.20 Bright House claimed we owed, the company wanted to charge us a $20 “collection charge” for the bill.
By now, Kari was deeply troubled by this “room service” bill that had been delivered, so she called the toll-free number on the back and was connected to someone named “Dustin.” He didn’t sound like a Dustin — the call felt far away and Dustin’s accent suggested he might be in the Philippines.
Dustin politely explained that we owed a grand total of $440.20 from a Bright House bill originally sent to us in 2003. Settling up would be easy. We could pay by credit card, check or cash.
Just one problem: We didn’t live here in 2003. Someone else did. We moved to central Florida in 2004.
Any leverage “Dustin” and Bright House thought they might have had quickly vanished when we explained to him that they could feel free to disconnect our service. We don’t have a TV and have never been Bright House customers.
Dustin agreed to zero out our balance. But we weren’t done with him yet.
“How did you get our address?” Kari asked.
Dustin explained that he didn’t actually work for Bright House. He was employed by a collection agency that he declined to name and the debt had been sold to his agency. These third parties buy old debts for pennies on the dollar and then try to collect them.
But suppose I had lived in this residence in 2003 and was a longtime Bright House subscriber. Then things might have gone much differently. Like so many consumers who are concerned about having a good credit score and paying every bill on time, I might have reflexively coughed up the $440.20 without asking questions, which is exactly what this collection agency would have wanted.
A review of my rights under the law suggests that Bright House may have come close to crossing a line with our “room service” notice. It provided no evidence that we had an account with the company or that we owed it any money. It just asked us to pay and threatened to cut off our cable if we didn’t.
Sadly, this says more about the frayed relationship between consumers and corporate America than it does about us or Bright House. The company is just trying to collect what it believes it’s owed, which is its right. The debt collectors it hired are doing their best to collect the money within the law, even if they might be coming close to breaking it.
And the customers? Well, we don’t know how many uncollected bills Bright House has. It’s an LLC, so its annual reports aren’t made public. But a company like Time Warner, which is publicly traded, listed $131 million in bad debts in 2013 on net income of $1.9 billion. That’s a lot of deadbeat cable customers.
So the next time you see a collection notice on your front door, ask a lot of questions. If you owe the money, please pay up so that these ham-fisted efforts can end. If you don’t owe, then complain to the company, to local authorities and to federal regulators, or to the whole world, so this nonsense can be stopped.