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Comcast Meets Kafka: A Multimedia Essay for the FTC
Repeated calls to customer service reveal that Comcast can't get its own e-mail address right.

August 9, 2009
Also published on The Huffington Post

I reported previously that I had encountered some trouble with my Comcast Internet connection. After three months I couldn't stand it anymore and I switched to AT&T u-Verse. (No, contrary to some people's beliefs, I am not being paid by anyone to write this. I'm sure I'll have something to say about AT&T eventually, too. The Electronic Frontier Foundation certainly does.)

My new service works just fine, but I sadly have not been able to escape the grasp of Comcast's truly Herculean incompetence. Rather than write about it forever, which I easily could, I'll just let you and the Federal Trade Commission listen in. After all, my calls were recorded for training and quality assurance purposes; we might as well rest assured of their quality.

What could Comcast possibly have done to make me go through the bother of recording, editing and posting eight telephone customer service telephone calls? The answer is surprisingly simple: they asked me to send a copy of my driver's license to an e-mail address that didn't even belong to Comcast, and then refused to admit the error. (That, and they also deliberately withheld my own billing information for months on end, which they continue to do.)

The following calls have been edited to remove my personal information and shorten some of the more insane hold times.

Call 1 (2:09 Edited) - May 26, 2009 - I attempt to finally cancel my Comcast service. The phone system routes me to a busy signal.

Call 2 - May 26, 2009 - I actually do cancel my Comcast service. Unfortunately, the recording is cut short by my computer.

Call 3 (4:10 Edited) - July 27, 2009 - I call Comcast's President's office to get my latest billing statements e-mailed to me. Per Comcast company policy, I can't sign into the comcast.com web site to pay my bill anymore because my service has been terminated. I also haven't received my statements in the mail as promised. Five days after the fact, I also have been charged $350.00 for "unreturned equipment" that UPS tracking confirms has been returned.

Call 4 (5:24 Edited) - August 1, 2009 - I call Comcast customer service again to get my latest billing statements e-mailed to me. This customer service representative is actually understanding and helpful — but only because she makes false promises. The e-mail I ask for that she assures me will come in an hour never actually arrives.

Side Note: Now you can pay Comcast using an automated system — FOR FREE! (It's $3.99 to make a payment otherwise.) This particularly abhorrent practice was the subject of debate in the recent financial industry reform discussions in Congress, but apparently it's still okay for telecommunications companies to charge people for the privilege of paying their bills.

Call 5 (4:00 Edited) - August 1, 2009 - I call Comcast again to get my latest billing statements e-mailed to me. Why hasn't the e-mail arrived? The systems are down. Of course.

Call 6 (2:18 Edited) - August 2, 2009 - As instructed, I call Comcast again the next day to get my latest billing statements e-mailed to me. The adventure continues, or it would, if Comcast were actually open.

Call 7 (1:51 Edited) - August 3, 2009 - I call Comcast again to get my latest billing statements e-mailed to me. I'm starting to get the hang of the phone system! Or maybe not. Comcast is too busy wasting other people's time to waste any more of mine.

Call 8 (16:39 Edited) - August 3, 2009 - I call Comcast again to get my latest billing statements e-mailed to me. Things start to get interesting.

Call 9 (12:12 Edited) - August 7, 2009 - I call Comcast again to get my latest billing statements e-mailed to me. Aside from being wrong about her own company's e-mail address scheme, Comcast's customer service supervisor exhibits an all-too-common (among arrogant corporations) misunderstanding of California's call recording statutes. According to Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, California Penal Code ยง 632 states that "[e]very person who, intentionally and without the consent of all parties to a confidential communication, by means of any electronic amplifying or recording device, ... records the confidential communication" may be held criminally or civilly liable. Comcast can record calls nonetheless because (again, according to the article) "a business that advises all parties of its intent to record a telephone call at the outset of the conversation does not violate Section 632." Simultaneously, situations where there is a reasonable expectation that a recording could be made are excluded from the statute. Given that Comcast greets all of its customer service callers with a disclaimer about calls being recorded within seconds, and that there's already a reasonable expectation that customer service calls will be recorded in this day and age, it's absurd for Comcast to claim that it, but not the customer, can record calls.

I did try sending a test e-mail to the address I was told, and received this error (as I expected):

The original message was received at Fri, 7 Aug 2009 18:08:10 -0400from X-X-X-X.lightspeed.sntcca.sbcglobal.net [X.X.X.X]

——- The following addresses had permanent fatal errors ——-
<danny_barrera@comcast.cable.com> (reason: 553 5.3.0 <danny_barrera@cable.com>... No forwarding information. Try the phone.)

——- Transcript of session follows ——-
... while talking to mail.it.ca.:
>>> >>> DATA
<<< 553 5.3.0 <danny_barrera@cable.com>... No forwarding information. Try the phone.
550 5.1.1 <danny_barrera@comcast.cable.com>... User unknown
<<< 503 5.0.0 Need RCPT (recipient)

I also tried sending an e-mail to the same address but without the extra dot between "comcast" and "cable." Instead, I got a different error:

**********************************************
** THIS IS A WARNING MESSAGE ONLY **
** YOU DO NOT NEED TO RESEND YOUR MESSAGE **
**********************************************

The original message was received at Fri, 7 Aug 2009 18:14:12 -0400from X-X-X-X.lightspeed.sntcca.sbcglobal.net [X.X.X.X]

——- Transcript of session follows ——-
<danny_barrera@comcastcable.com>... Deferred: Connection timed out with comcastcable.com.
Warning: message still undelivered after 4 hours
Will keep trying until message is 5 days old

Sadly, despite all of this, I still don't have all of my statements. I did manage to file complaint number 23595394 with the FTC, however. Maybe I'm asking too much — or maybe not.

Update: One day after this article was published, Comcast called and e-mailed me upside-down scanned copies of the PDF statements I requested. The company still would not commit to changing its policy of locking customers out of their own billing information.

Aaron Greenspan is the CEO of Think Computer Corporation and author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. He is the creator of the FaceCash mobile payment system, ThinkLink business management system, and PlainSite legal transparency project.

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