UPDATE: check out How to get your cancellation fees back from DirecTV to see how I got my money back in the end. Good luck!
So you order DirecTV and are told you have to stick with them two years if you lease a DVR – otherwise you’ll be charged cancellation fees. You agree. Within that two years, the cheaply made DVR breaks down and you call them. They offer to replace it. No one ever mentions that replacing it causes your contract to be extended another two years. You agree to it being replaced. Then you decide to cancel your service, say, a year and a half later and what happens? You’re told you’ll have to pay cancellation fees of several hundred dollars. It’s all over the internet and in the media: here, here and even in this article about an FCC hearing on the policy.
Note how people keep saying “It was in the fine print when you signed up.” That’s what DirecTV reps are trained to tell you, too. But I am such a nerd that I actually always read my agreements when I agree to them, or at least skim them. I was pretty sure I’d never read anything remotely like “activating any new or additional receivers will begin a new contract/extend your existing contract” in any agreement with DirecTV, so I double-checked their claim that it’s in the fine print. Guess what? It’s not. It’s not in any agreement you have with DirecTV. Nor does it appear on BestBuy receipts, as they claim it must have been, if you bought a DVR there.
My own situation was a little unique, in that I had four DVRs break down in about as many months, got disgusted and phoned them up to cancel service. In an attempt to keep me as a customer, they convinced me to go to Best Buy, pick out a different model of DVR, and they would reimburse me. I spoke to two different agents to confirm various details – among them, that this would not extend my contract. I asked this question clearly. They clearly assured me it would not extend the contract. End of story, right?
Until I canceled service recently and was told that the purchase of that DVR in July 2008 had extended my contract to July 2010, so I owed them $220 in cancellation fees. I told them two agents had assured me it wouldn’t. They said it didn’t matter what their agents said, because it was in the fine print in my agreements with DirecTV (available online) and also on my BestBuy receipt. Fortunately, I still had my BestBuy receipt.
Yeah? Where in the fine print, exactly?
My BestBuy receipt said only that my equipment lease was governed by the document at http://directv.com/legal, which actually redirects to another page. Go have a look at that document, if you have time – two DirecTV reps I spoke to found nothing. I had to point out to them that while it says absolutely nothing about equipment leasing extending contracts, it refers you to an “Equipment Lease Addendum” which you can only find by typing that term into the search box. A little sneaky, but legal enough. I directed the reps to that addendum and two of them still couldn’t find where it said anything about equipment leases affecting contract terms. Finally, a supervisor pointed to this paragraph (and please note: all misspellings and incorrect capitalizations in mid-sentence are theirs not mine – maybe they should get a high school junior with As in English to go over what their legal team produces):
For a new DIRECTV customer, The programming package(s) must be maintained for a period of not less than twenty-four (24) consecutive months. For a current DIRECTV customer, the programming package(s) must be maintained for a period of not less than (a) twelve (12) consecutive months for accounts with only standard receiver(s), or (b) twenty-four (24) consecutive months for accounts with advanced product(s)/receiver(s) (DVR, HD, or HD DVR, including additional DIRECTV receiver(s)). After you have fulfilled the agreement to the required programming package(s), you are not obliged to continue your subscription to DIRECTV programming for any specific duration. Current DIRECTV customers may activate additional receivers with thier existing DIRECTV programming package. THIS AGREEMENT TO MAINTAIN PROGRAMMING IS SEPARATE AND DIFFERENT FROM ANY OTHER PROGRAMMING COMMITMENT YOU MAY HAVE MADE WITH DIRECTV AND IS FULLY ENFORCEABLE UNDER THESE TERMS.
Being the huge nerd I am, at the time I purchased the new DVR, I actually read this stupid addendum and asked the two reps I talked to about this vague, ambiguous paragraph specifically. The second sentence seems to be a repeat of the first, in a way that suggests they’re trying to imply something different, but maybe they’re just making sure both new and existing customers understand this applies to them. Both reps I asked for clarification at the time assured me that because I’d already been with DirecTV over two years, and clearly the DVR breakdowns were not my fault, my contract would not be extended by buying the new DVR. Last week, a DirecTV supervisor I spoke to said she could understand why the reps had misinterpreted the clause back then, and that I had a “strong case” for disputing the cancellation fee (which you have to do in writing via a letter).
Yeah. Ya think?
Here, I’ll show you exactly what is missing from the above clause (bold below is my addition):
…For a current DIRECTV customer, the programming package(s) must be maintained for a period of not less than (a) twelve (12) consecutive months for accounts with only standard receiver(s), or (b) twenty-four (24) consecutive months from the time of activation of any new or additional receiver(s)…
See? That’s still legalese, but straightforward enough. But without my bolded addition, that sentence is just a head-scratcher. And if two of their own reps didn’t understand the clause, then it’s totally unreasonable for DirecTV to contend that customers should.
So why isn’t the clause written more clearly? Better yet, why doesn’t DirecTV do what every other contracted utility I deal with do, and train their reps to inform you whenever a request you’re making is going to extend your contract? For example, I once asked my ISP for a faster modem, and was told they’d be happy to send one, but it would restart my one-year commitment. It feels to me like DirecTV is trying to sneak this (very lucrative) policy past subscribers. If they really think this policy is so perfectly reasonable, why not be a little more up front with it?
The hamster wheel – from crap DVR to crap DVR
What seems most unfair about this is that the DVRs are shoddily made (see here, here and here) and don’t seem to outlast many people’s initial contract periods. To finish the contract, you need a new DVR. Accepting rental of a new one extends the contract another year or two, during which time the crappy DVR breaks again.
Additionally, there’s no loophole for escaping the contract if you move to a new home where you can’t get DirecTV or aren’t allowed to by your landlord or local neighborhood regulations. With every other contracted utility I know of, they don’t expect you to pay for canceling a service that’s no longer available to you. It’s ridiculous.
Get out of autopay now
I also had set up Autopay to pay my DirecTV bill for me each month. Interestingly, signing up for it is something you can do instantly online, but:
- Online, there is no way to cancel it. You must do this by phone.
- It takes up to one month for the cancellation to go through. That’s plenty of time for DirecTV to grab your cancellation fees off your credit card before you can dispute the charge.
I felt like I needed to shower after dealing with this company. It’s one thing for companies to openly charge ludicrous fees. It’s quite another when they work so hard at sneaking it past you, and then claim it was all right there in black and white but their own reps can’t even point out the correct “fine print.” After all, they have no qualms about clearly announcing the initial two-year contract period when you sign up and making sure you understand it – that led me to think I could trust them. I was so very mistaken.
And you can’t go by what their reps say
During this whole mess, I spoke to a number of different reps and kept getting contradictory information. My contract was to April of 2010. No, the rep who told me that was wrong – it was July. No, April. No, wait – yep, July. I was told I should have ignored the silly reps who told me buying a new DVR wouldn’t extend my contract (but I shouldn’t ignore the rep I was talking to now?). I was also told there was no way they would have reimbursed me for a DVR, and I had to be wrong about that – until somebody looked at the records and realized, oh, yeah, I was telling the truth. A particularly rude and hostile supervisor named Joshua told me no way had I had four DVR replacements (in a tone that implied I was just lying outright) until I asked him to tell me the dates of the replacement, and he looked at the records and found four dates. D’oh!
DirecTV completely wrecked all credibility with me right there. Furthermore, “Joshua” told me he had the authority to waive my cancellation fees but refused to. Then another rep told me he had no such authority, but had in fact gone ahead and put the cancellation fee on my account, which he also had no authority to do, which she then took off. At one point, there was even a credit for the cancellation fee on my account. I was also told they will not send me an itemized breakdown of the cancellation fee and refund for a partial month of service, but they would send me the whole accounting ledger for my account. (I’ve yet to receive it.)
Does any of this sound sane to you?
If you’re subscribing to DirecTV currently and are considering canceling them for any reason, I would suggest calling a rep today to get a firm answer about where you’re at on your contract, and when you can next cancel without penalty. Not that I’m sure you can trust anything they say, so get it in writing. They’ll tell you they can’t do that, but you tell them they can’t have it both ways: they can’t hide behind “Ignore what we say, it’s what’s written that counts” without being willing to document everything they tell you, right? You may not be able to escape cancellation fees, but the more you know, the better chance you have.