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FCC hits Comcast with record cable company fine over billing practices

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Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Comcast is being fined $2.3 million for billing customers for products that they never ordered. The fine was announced this morning as part of a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission, which says this is "the largest civil penalty" it’s ever issued a cable operator.

In addition to paying the fine, Comcast will also have to make changes to how it sells products, so that — and this is going to seem extraordinarily reasonable — customers only have to pay for things they’ve actually agreed to buy.

Most of the issue arose over a practice called "negative option billing," where Comcast would begin charging customers if they didn’t actively decline or cancel a service. The commission says this occurred with premium cable channels and DVRs, among other products; in some cases, customers said they were billed despite specifically declining the product or service.

"Our customer service should have been better."

In a statement, Comcast says it acknowledges that, "in the past, our customer service should have been better and our bills clearer, and that customers have at times been unnecessarily frustrated or confused." But it claims to have "already put in place many improvements" that the FCC is asking for.

On top of that, Comcast broadly disagrees with the FCC’s actions findings, despite agreeing to the settlement. "We do not agree with the [FCC Enforcement] Bureau’s legal theory here, and in our view, after two years, it is telling that it found no problematic policy or intentional wrongdoing, but just isolated errors or customer confusion," a spokesperson said.

The FCC cited several instances of complaints from mid-2014 through mid-2015 where customers were billed for services they didn’t agree to.

Under the settlement, Comcast will now have to "obtain affirmative informed consent" before billing customers for a new service or piece of equipment. It will also send a bill confirming the order, "clearly and conspicuously describing newly added products and their associated charges," the FCC says. Comcast will also give customers the option to block any addition of new products to their account.

Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.