Bamboozled October 16, 2017: Why this cable customer refuses to pay monthly $5.29 modem fee

John Covino with his own cable modem at home in Parsippany.
John Covino with his own cable modem at home in Parsippany. (Alexandria Pais/For NJ Advance Media)
When’s the last time you took a close look at your cable bill?

You’ll see lots of taxes and fees, including a sales tax, a franchise fee, a state fee, an FCC user fee.

While you pay a premium for movie channels and sports packages, the taxes and fees can feel like you’re being nickeled and dimed to the poorhouse.

So when John Covino of Parsippany saw his Optimum cable bill go up by $5.29 in one month, he wanted to know why.

He reviewed his bill, which had been $59.95 for a long time. His August bill was $65.24.

“That’s when I saw that they added a modem fee of $4.95, and modem sales tax of 34 cents,” said Covino, 44. “Which is preposterous, since I’ve always owned my own modem. And I still do.”

Covino said he called the billing department, and the customer service rep said he needed to speak to tech support.

So he was transferred, and he again explained the problem. The rep put Covino on hold so he could research the bills.

When the rep returned, he said the billing history showed a technician visited Covino’s home and replaced the modem in May 2011.

That’s not exactly what happened, Covino said.

“I told him that the rep fixed the actual problem, which was the cable running into my house and the ground block,” he said. “He replaced the modem against my wishes, and I immediately returned that modem to the store in Randolph. And continued to use my own modem.”

That same month, Covino said, he upgraded his modem with one he purchased from Best Buy.

The rep said he would note it all on Covino’s account, that the bill would be fixed and that Covino should not need to speak to anyone else.

To cover himself, Covino said, he wrote a letter addressing the matter, which he included when he paid his bill. He included a copy of the receipt showing he returned the Optimum modem in 2011. He only paid the $59.95 and not the modem charges.

ROUND TWO

Just before receiving his next bill, Covino said, he received a voicemail from an Optimum rep. The rep didn’t leave her number but said she had been trying to reach him by phone.

Covino reached out to the company.

“[The rep] said that the receipt for the returned modem was not proof of anything, except that I returned a modem,” Covino said. “And that they would need a copy of a sales receipt from Best Buy.”

He received a letter that said the same, and before he could take action, he received his next bill.

This bill included the monthly amount of $5.29 for the modem and tax, plus a past due amount for the last month’s modem charges, bringing the bill to $70.53.

John Covino’s modem and its packaging. Covino said this proved the modem was his and not provided by Optimum.

This time, he wrote a more detailed letter. He included a copy of the invoice from the tech’s 2011 visit that said the tech was replacing a customer-owned modem on May 5. And he also included the receipt to show he returned that modem on May 10.

He didn’t have the receipt from the modem he purchased more than six years ago, so he couldn’t include it, but he did the best he could with other proof.

“I included pictures of the modem in question, along with all the original packaging it came in,” he said, noting he included the bar codes so Optimum could see it wasn’t one of theirs.

Covino said no one responded to the letter, and he hoped it had all been resolved.

But his next bill showed yet another charge for the modem, along with a past due balance, bringing his total due to $75.82.

Now it was the beginning of October. He headed to the Randolph Optimum store, bringing with him copies of all the information he previously provided the company by mail.

John Covino with his cable modem. He’s been trying to convince Optimum that the modem is his and she should not be charged a modem fee.

After looking the paperwork, the rep said she saw her own identifiers on the paperwork and that she had been the one to take the returned modem from Covino in 2011.

She reviewed his complaint and said she would put notes in his file, Covino said.

“After discussing my issues and reviewing the pictures of my modem, she said that the modem I’m using was the modem that replaced the one the technician installed. And that it was activated in June 2011,” Covino said. “And, a much more important bit of information, that they have never offered the model modem I have.”

Thinking it had all been resolved, Covino once again paid the $59.95 regular bill, leaving off the $15.87 in accumulated modem fees and taxes.

Covino said he’s been happy with Optimum since he first became a customer in 2006, calling the service excellent. But he called this dispute “ridiculous,” noting he doesn’t even have a choice to switch to another provider.

“I’ve wasted hours and hours, compiling information, writing letters, taking pictures. All for a lousy $5.29 a month,” Covino said. “It’s simply the principle. All my billing history shows I was never charged a modem fee.”

A RESOLUTION?

We reviewed Covino’s bills, photographs of his modem and his timeline of events, and we asked the folks at Altice, the company that now owns Optimum and Cablevision, to take a look.

By the end of the day, Covino got a call from a rep from the “Corporate Executive Customer Relations Department” at Optimum.

The rep offered to credit Covino’s account for the previously charged modem fees and taxes. But to set things right permanently, it would take a little manipulation of the system.

Optimum would give Covino a $100 credit. This would be so that Covino could return his current modem to Optimum — even though the modem never belonged to Optimum — and then, Covino was to take the funds and purchase a brand new modem.

“He said that replacing the modem is the only way to prevent the fee from appearing in the future,” Covino said. “For some reason, my modem appears in their inventory and can’t be removed. So he says.”

Covino said he’ll accept solution that as long as the credits would be applied.

The next day, a credit were there, but it was $1.02 short. Covino did some math and realized it was the monthly 34 cent tax that wasn’t refunded.

So he called Optimum again, and the rep agreed to take care of the credit immediately.

Now, it seems Covino’s problem has been solved.

We checked back with Optimum to see if it had anything to add.

“We appreciate Mr. Covino’s business and given his tenure and loyalty we have worked to resolve this matter to his satisfaction,” spokeswoman Lisa Anselmo said.

We’re glad to see the modem mayhem is over. We’ll let you know if it’s not.

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