Charter bills irk customers

COVINGTON - Changes in cable TV and Internet charges reflected on recent bills have some Charter Communications customers confused and angry.

Several customers have called the Citizen to report drastic increases in rates in the last month, increases they say came without warning.

Charter customer John Womack said his cable bill has increased from around $40 to $65.

"That was a 50 percent increase with no prior warning - nothing," he said.

Customer Andrea Walker saw a similar increase in her Internet bill on her Feb. 21 statement. Previously, Walker was paying $29.99 for her Internet service, but her bill suddenly increased to $44.99, she said.

When she called Charter's customer service line, Walker said she was told that the $29.99 was a special promotional price that had expired. But Walker said she wasn't aware that she was taking part in a promotional offer.

"When I called, they said, 'You were under a special deal,' and I said, 'no, I wasn't," she said.

Walker said Charter included a coupon to get Internet service for $29.99 in her statement, but when she asked to use the coupon, "(the customer service representative) said, 'That doesn't apply to you.'"

Jerry and Linda Parish also have had problems with their cable bill, which increased from $23 to $42. The issue has now been corrected, Jerry Parish said, "but we're still dissatisfied with the service we've got."

Parish said he was notified in a statement earlier this year about a rate increase needed for system improvements, "but ain't nobody been able to explain what those improvements were," he said.

Everett "Skip" James, Charter's director of government relations for Georgia, said a small rate increase has been implemented for cable TV, and customers were given a 30-day advance warning.

When asked the amount of the rate increase, James said he did not have that information.

"We have had to adjust rates this year. Rates haven't been increased in two years. Most companies increase every year," James said. "We've added to our customer selection video on demand, high definition TV and higher Internet speeds."

Customers experiencing a large increase were likely under a promotional offer that has now expired, he said.

"We've adjusted rates. Some things went down, some things went up, but we're not talking anywhere near 50 percent," he said.

"I suggest to people that if they feel they are paying too much to call customer service. They will help them and possibly place them into a bundled package," he said.

When asked if rates are being raised to encourage customers to sign up for bundled services, James said, "Rates are not being adjusted to force a person to choose a bundle. However, bundling is an option a customer can choose to save money."

All customers who spoke to the Citizen said they have contacted customer service but only wound up more frustrated.

"The service is poor and getting in touch with someone in customer service takes an act of God and three of his disciples," Womack said.

Walker said she spent 45 minutes speaking with a supervisor, who eventually agreed to charge her Internet rate back to $29.99, and she's waiting a few days before calling to make sure her account has been updated.

"If they don't change it, I'm going to cut it off, probably," Walker said. "I'm not going to pay it because there are too many other plans going on here."

Walker, Womack and the Parishes all said they've had difficulty understanding customer service representatives who answer their calls, and have often been answered by representatives in other states and even other countries.

Complaints about Charter's customer service are nothing new for the company.

The Better Business Bureau reports receiving 2,308 complaints about Charter in the last 36 months, prompting the Bureau to post this warning on its Web site:

"The Better Business Bureau has received numerous complaints regarding this cable, digital TV and high-speed access provider. Complainants primarily allege that the firm had improper billing practices, referred customer bills to collection agencies in error, provided poor customer service, used misleading advertising, provided defective internet or cable performance, used improper sales tactics or misrepresented the actual costs of installation and service, failed to properly install or maintain service, damaged customers property and failed to honor service appointments."

Most recently, Consumer Reports indicated in its February 2008 issue that Charter's television/Internet and telephone bundled package is the worst of all major national carriers.

James did not respond to these criticisms, but did say that subscriber numbers have increased "substantially" since Charter took over the cable service from the city of Covington in September.

James said he could not disclose the number of subscribers for competitive reasons.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.