Satellite TV customer complaints keep mounting: BBB

Unhappy satellite TV subscribers -- most customers of DirecTV and Dish Network -- have been complaining by the thousands to the Better Business Bureau.

More than 53,000 satellite customers have complained to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in the previous three years -- with 39,000 of those complaints filed against DirecTV and 13,000 against Dish Network.

DirecTV has more than 18 million customers, while Dish Network serves some 14 million. Neither company enjoys a stellar BBB rating. Dish Network earned a grade of C from the BBB, while DirecTV received an F. That failing grade means the bureau "strongly" questions "the company's reliability for reasons such as that they have failed to respond to complaints, their advertising is grossly misleading, they are not in compliance with the law's licensing or registration requirements, their complaints contain especially serious allegations, or the company's industry is known for its fraudulent business practices."

According to the BBB, many complaints against the companies stem from complex fees and and terms that are usually overlooked in the fine print of customer agreements. The bureau urges consumers to read those service terms carefully.

"Many complaints to BBB about satellite providers stem from steep cancellation fees," said Stephen A. Cox, President and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in a statement. "If customers aren't satisfied with their service or they can't afford the cost after the introductory period, it isn't that easy to cancel because the early termination fees can run into the hundreds of dollars."

Common complaints about satellite TV providers to the BBB include:

Early Termination Fees -- Some customers reported paying cancellation fees exceeding $600, and often felt the company didn't provide the services promised. In some cases, customers claimed they were not aware of the policy or that a sales representative misstated the terms.

Introductory Offers -- Many promotions offer a lower price or premium channels for an introductory period, after which the customer is charged the full price. Some complainants said their monthly bill increased substantially more than they anticipated. Others said they were promised gift cards for signing up that never materialized or rebates that couldn't be redeemed immediately.

Billing issues -- Some customers said they were charged for services they didn't order or thought were free. Some reported being charged for receivers they had already returned. In some cases the unexpected charges were the result of expiring introductory rates or offers.

Service issues -- Customers have also contacted the BBB over reception quality issues, channel offerings or difficulties in getting equipment repaired.

Upgrades Resulting in Contract Extension -- Some customers were upset to learn that when they upgraded their service or equipment, it resulted in a contract extension for which they were subsequently charged early cancellation fees.

When signing up for satellite TV service, BBB recommends that customers:

Get it all in writing -- Don't just take a salesman, installer or customer service representative's word for the terms of service. You might also be speaking with a third-party retailer and verbal promises may not appear in the final customer agreement.

Read the terms and conditions carefully -- Pay close attention to the terms on introductory offers, equipment costs and cancellation policies.

Check every bill closely -- The sooner you spot inaccuracies in billing, the better. Even if you have your account set up to automatically charge your credit card or debit your checking account, always review your monthly bill closely for any new or unusual charges.

Mark your calendar -- Put important dates down on your calendar such as when you need to cancel introductory promotions for premium channels and the end of your contract.

File a complaint with BBB -- Consult the terms that you agreed to and if you're unable to reach an agreement with your satellite provider, file a complaint with your BBB. Dish Network and DirecTV have responded to BBB complaints and the bureau says it has been able to help consumers receive refunds in many cases.
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