DirecTV contract dispute leaves bad feelings

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I am a consumer in need of an ally and I'm hoping you can help! In 2008, I signed up for a two-year agreement with DirecTV. This particular agreement had provisions for moving and other life circumstances. About five months into the contract, I moved and attempted to establish DirecTV service at my new home. After one month, many wasted hours, and three botched installation attempts, it was determined on the fourth try that service could not be established in my new home because there was no appropriate cable path from the point of entry on the second floor to the downstairs living area.

According to my contract, I am entitled to a six month suspension of payments/service if I should need it and I opted to exercise that option at that time. About three months later, DirecTV deducted $460.19 from my checking account. I called and it turns out the order to suspend never made it to the right people and they canceled my account for non-payment and charged my debit card for the back payments and equipment.

The first rep I spoke to looked through the notes in my account and found the note that stated I had asked for a suspension. She verbally acknowledged that DirecTV had made a mistake and canceled my account in error. She promised to get it straightened out and my money refunded in 72 hours. A week later, I was promised a refund in two weeks. Three weeks later, I was promised a refund in 48 hours. Many weeks and many hours on the phone later, I still had no refund.

They told me they would give me back some of the money they debited from my account if I returned their equipment. They gave me a temporary credit of $211.99 in March 2009 and $39.43 in April 2009, and sent me an equipment return kit. They said that if they didn't get their equipment back within 30 days, they would take back the temporary credit. At that point, I had my bank change my card number so that they couldn't take it back. I told them that I would be happy to return their equipment (and I'm still willing to do so), but not until they straightened everything else out. I feel they still owe me $208.77.

I realize taking their credit and not returning the equipment wasn't exactly playing fair, but I felt holding their equipment was they only way to get them to reason with me. I feared that if I sent it back, they would not be willing to negotiate because there wouldn't be anything in it for them. What can I say -- I was frustrated and desperate! Can you help?
Amber Martin

A. This is quite the mess. There's been so much back and forth between you and DIRECTV that I think we're all a little confused -– myself included. A spokesperson for the company dug into this and told me that DIRECTV feels that this matter is closed. "The Better Business Bureau looked into the matter and agreed the charge is valid. Ms. Martin simply has declined to return the DIRECTV owned lease receiver. However, as a courtesy, DIRECTV has reversed the $208.77, which was the remaining balance on her account to resolve this issue."

Basically, the company's records say that they refunded you the $208.77, despite the fact that you failed to return the receiver. I know that's the amount you feel you are still owed. It's possible that the refund was issued after your account number was changed, but even so, it would have been investigated by your bank and eventually deposited into your account.

So I brought in a consumer lawyer, Andrew Doktofsky, to take a look at your contract. He says that the agreement mandates arbitration, meaning you can't sue in court. "It says that the customer has to pay a filing fee of up to $125, and that DIRECTV will pay all other fees. So, depending on how much the customer thinks is due to her, it may be worth going through the arbitration procedure."

My advice? I'd let it go, especially because you've held the equipment hostage for so long. Doktofsky says the contract clearly states that the customer doesn't own the equipment, and must return it. "I don't believe that she can withhold the equipment to force DIRECTV to give her a credit."

One thing I would do, though, and Doktofsky agrees, is check your credit report to make sure that DIRECTV hasn't reported your account as delinquent. If they have, you should try to get that wiped off the record, and to do that, I'm sorry to say, you're going to need to work with DIRECTV directly to see if they'll clear the negative information. Getting them to do so may involve returning that equipment.
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