Vicki Hart doesn’t have anything against porn.
The Woodbridge woman said hundreds of dollars of charges for adult programming have appeared on her Comcast bill. When she complained the first two times, the company investigated and removed the charges.
But the third time it happened, Comcast said she’d have to pay.
“I’ve lived here for 16 years and I’ve had Comcast as my provider ever since,” Hart said. “I’ve always ordered regular pay-per-view movies, but I’ve never once ordered an adult film.”
Hart, 43, is a breast cancer survivor. She still has ongoing health problems and can’t work, so she spends a lot of time at home.
At the end of 2011, she signed up for a new, less expensive Comcast package for cable television, internet and phone to cut her expenses.
Hart said a Comcast contractor swapped the old boxes for new ones on Jan. 1. On Jan. 10, Hart said, she tried to order her first movie: “I Don’t Know How She Does It’’ starring Sarah Jessica Parker. She got an error. Then a second error.
“I called Comcast and they said it was because I was at my credit limit,” she said.
The rep said more than $200 of adult movies had been ordered, she said.
The films were ordered in batches over several consecutive days, several times a month. For example, on Jan. 12, there was an order for a six-hour TEN film at 3:30 p.m., then a six-hour Penthouse film at 6:30 p.m., followed by a Playboy film at 8:30 p.m. More films were ordered after midnight and for the next 18 hours, and eight more films the day after that.
Comcast said the movies were purchased from the master box in Hart’s master bedroom.
“They told me they were going to investigate it,” she said
Hart said she unplugged the box and swapped it for a new one at a local store. She later got a call from Comcast saying she would be credited $280 for the films, and they told her how to set a PIN to block unauthorized people from ordering movies.
Hart set the PIN number, and she thought it was done.
On Jan. 19, she said, she tried to order the same movie but she got the same error.
“I’m thinking that maybe they forgot to flip a switch, or maybe they put a block on it,” Hart said. “They’re like, ‘No, ma’am. There are $300 to $400 worth of adult films.’ It happened again.”
The rep suggested that someone in the home had ordered the movies, Hart said.
“Either I’m here or I’m at the doctor’s office, unless it’s my cat who has an addiction to porn after I’m asleep at night,” she said.
In a few days, her account was credited $550.59 for the adult films.
She requested Comcast install three new boxes. An appointment was set for Feb. 10 while Hart would be in Florida visiting her terminally ill father, but Hart’s boyfriend of nine years would take a day off from work to meet the technician.
Hart said when she arrived back home on Feb. 18, she added new PINs to all three boxes.
The new bill arrived in early March. Dated Feb. 29, it included $423.65 of new charges for adult movies.
Again Hart contacted Comcast. This time, the credit was denied. Comcast said the orders were linked to equipment associated with her account.
More calls yielded no help, so Hart had a Comcast technician arrive to make sure her PINs were being used correctly. They were, the tech said.
“I actually unscrewed the outlet to make sure no one could splice it through the wall,” she said. “The tech said now that they’ve gone digital, there’s no way anyone could do it.”
To protect herself, she blocked all pay-per-movies, but she said that’s not a real solution because she’d like to order a regular movie when she wants, just as she always has.
She turned to Bamboozled for help.
THE TECHIES ANSWER
Denying responsibility for adult movie charges is commonplace. Many cable subscribers eventually learn that someone in their own home — a spouse, partner or child — did order the movies.
Before taking on Hart’s case, we had a host of questions about who has access to her home.
“I am the housekeeper, accountant and chef,” she said. “I have no one that comes in.”
She has no kids. No family members who come and go. She’s not having construction at the home, so workers aren’t in and out. Her boyfriend of nine years does have access, but he works a full-time job — including times when movies were ordered.
Upon our request, Hart gave us copies of telephone records and datebooks so we could compare Hart’s and her boyfriend’s locations during the times of the porn charges.
It seems there were plenty of times that Hart has evidence that no one was home, or that her boyfriend was working, when movies were ordered.
For example, there were unauthorized charges on Jan. 21 from 12:30 to 9:30 p.m. Cell phone records, datebook records and receipts show that on Jan. 21, Hart was at a 1:45 doctor’s appointment and her boyfriend was at his job, 45 minutes away, from 9 a.m. until 8:14 p.m.
We looked at many other dates, too.
If the skeptics among you think it has to be the boyfriend, consider this: If he’s been with Hart for nine years, why suddenly order porn for the first time? And even if it was him, after Hart discovered the January charges, why continue to order month after month?
Also, it’s customary for service providers to give customers a credit the first time an unexpected or possibly unauthorized charge appears on a bill. But if Comcast’s investigation determined the orders originated in the house, why credit Hart a second time?
We looked online for similar complaints and found many. Customers said they even unhooked their boxes for an entire month, but the porn charges continued to appear.
We took these questions to Comcast, and while it investigated, we talked to a few experts to see if it was technically possible for someone to hack into another customer’s digital system.
For starters, a simple Google search finds all kinds of ways to allegedly hack into cable boxes, but we’re not techies at heart. We asked the experts.
David Maloney, a security researcher at Rapid7, a security assessment company, said it’s hard to give a definitive answer without knowing the specs of Comcast’s system in that area.
Still, while Comcast said it identified which set-top box placed the orders, Maloney said that’s not a foolproof system.
“STBs are usually identified simply by the MAC (Media Access Control) address, which is easily spoofed,” Maloney said.
He said spoofing a MAC address hides the actual hardware address, making it look like orders are coming from a different device.
Additionally, he said, many models of set-top boxes can be modified with new operating systems, giving attackers access.
He said companies often make the mistake of believing their STBs are known quantities and they fail to account for the possibility of them being modified.
“This can result in basic safeguards being neglected due to the mistaken assumption that an attacker could never get on that network,” he said.
Maloney also said if a malicious user was able to spoof a request from an STB so it appeared that a request was coming from another STB, it would theoretically be possible to purchase programming and charge it to someone else.
Tech analyst Jeff Kagan also said a hack is possible. He said he’s heard these complaints for years, and not just about Comcast, but about all cable providers.
“It may be just like hackers on your computer. They can hack into networks at various points and they can take service,” Kagan said. “(Cable companies) don’t talk about it because they don’t want everyone to know there is a problem.”
Comcast declined to answer questions about its security systems, but that makes perfect business sense.
“If they say they don’t have any piracy, then you put up this wall that hackers will want to climb,” said Jimmy Schaeffler, head of digital media and telecom research company Carmel Group. “If you say you do have piracy, then you open up the gates.”
A Comcast spokesman said the company’s teams are investigating Hart’s account and the potential origin of the disputed charges.
“We have done extensive testing and simulations and, at this point, see no indication of hacking or other intentional manipulation of our equipment or software,” the spokesman said. “At this time, we believe the charges could only have been the result of either a box inadvertently being associated with an incorrect account, or orders placed in the home without the customer’s permission or knowledge.”
He said Comcast won’t make decisions on new credits until its investigation is complete. He said the company will continue to work with its engineers to “isolate the source of the issue so it cannot reoccur for her or other customers.”
In the meantime, Hart has filed a small claims suit, hoping to compel Comcast to get to the bottom of things.
We’ll let you know what the next billing cycle shows.