I was living in a sprawling apartment complex in north San Jose, CA. The place was overrun with small children who would take over the small grassy courtyards every day from early afternoon until sundown, play-screaming at the tops of their lungs and rumbling their plastic wagons down the stony sidewalks. As people who value an occasional moment of silence, my boyfriend and I decided it was time for something cheaper, quieter, and farther away from the valley.
We decided to look at nearby Santa Cruz, since we had already spent a significant amount of time there. We got lucky and managed to find a cheaper apartment with almost twice the space. And so, a few months before moving in December 2014, we began the process of setting up a utility account, updating our billing addresses, and transferring our Comcast internet service to the new address.
This seemingly simple process spawned a panoply of bureaucratic headaches that would take a year to resolve.
I work in the telecommunications industry, so my company provides discounts on Comcast business-class internet at home. This is a trade-off because, although discounted, this specialized “Teleworker” account means none of the standard Comcast support numbers work when you need help. Every call seems to route through specialized help centers with conspicuous hours of operation.
Eventually I was able to find my Comcast Business Solutions contact and, via email, explained that I was relocating and needed to move my service. As this was a teleworker account and I sometimes worked from home, I also advised them that I expected to transfer service with no interruption.
“Well, that can’t be done.” I was told without hesitation.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “That’s entirely possible. Just route service to the new address and I’ll connect my modem when I move in.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but our systems aren’t set up to do that. We’ll have to schedule an appointment with a technician to come by in order to replace your modem and set up service.”
Because I was moving in on a Saturday, and no Comcast technicians work on Sunday, the best they could do was to send someone out the following Monday. I failed to understand why this was necessary but assented.
Move-in day arrived quickly and my boyfriend, equally skeptical of Comcast’s system limitations, connected our previous modem to our new apartment’s co-ax. What do you know, the internet immediately worked! We agreed to keep our Monday appointment, so the technician could make sure everything was correct.
The next day, the Comcast tech arrived at our apartment, surveyed our current setup, and said, “I don’t know why I’m here. You don’t need a new modem, this one is still connected to your current service and you’re welcome to keep using it.” We rolled our eyes, wished the technician well, and went on with our lives.
Three months later, I’m having a regular but busy day at work when I receive a threatening call from Comcast Billing Services. Natasha is somewhat too glad to inform me I haven’t paid my Comcast bill since December, the month I moved to Santa Cruz. She did not believe me when I disputed this.
We ended the phone call respectfully but mutually unsatisfied, both promising to investigate. I attempted to call Comcast National Business Services back that weekend, but they were a weekdays-only department.
The next week Natasha called again and I excused myself from a meeting to dedicate time to this burgeoning nightmare. Eventually, Natasha and I were able to determine four things:
- Comcast never deactivated service at my previous San Jose residence.
- Someone in my previous apartment was currently using this active node, possibly with their own modem.
- Comcast did not transfer my service under the same account to the new Santa Cruz residence. Rather, Comcast created an entirely new account associated with the Santa Cruz residence.
- This new Santa Cruz account was not associated with the web form I use to pay my bill.
What this meant was I had been paying for four months of complimentary internet for the new tenants at the San Jose apartment and had never paid for my own connection in Santa Cruz. The only solution to this, Natasha informed me, was to email Comcast with both account numbers and ask for service to be disconnected at the old residence and for my “active online payment account” to be updated. She said that processing would take 10 business days, and to expect no response. “In the meantime,” Natasha promised, “I’ll work to move your payments to your Santa Cruz account to resolve this past-due issue.”
Four months later, I was on vacation in Chicago. As far as I could tell, my payments had been successfully transferred to my Santa Cruz account. I assumed the matter was resolved. Never assume with Comcast. I was standing on the back porch of my friend Russ’s house, smoking a joint, finishing my latest beer and looking at Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful day in July. My phone started ringing.
“Hello, this is Chet from McCarthy, Burgess & Wolff, how are you today?”
“I’m great, Chet! How are you?” Smoke clouded out of my mouth.
Completely thrown by my unnecessarily cheery disposition in the face of what was sure to be a threatening legal call, Chet starts to stutter.
“Uh…I uh…I’m good sir, thanks! Before we get started I need to inform you that this call is an attempt to collect a debt and may be recorded for training purposes.”
“Well,” I said, taking another long hit off the joint and signaling to Russ that I may be a minute. “Who thinks I owe them money? Comcast? Ten dollars says it’s Comcast.” I wheezed out while the sounds of barking dogs and police sirens fired up in the background. A true Chicago day.
“Uh…yes sir. Looks like your Comcast account is past due and has been moved to collections.”
“Isn’t that awesome of Comcast to move my account into collections without first contacting me.”
“Well, sir, we’d love to resolve this today so what is the best way to settle this $157 debt? Would you like to setup a payment plan or we can accept payment today over the phone…”
“OK, Chet? Look.” I killed my beer. “I’m gonna get heavy and kind of meta on you. I know you work for a credit collections agency that is only affiliated with Comcast as a client. I also know that you, in your capacity, only serve one function: to collect the outstanding debt Comcast has told you I owe. Unfortunately, Comcast made a mistake. My suspicion is that after a billing dispute I assumed was resolved in March, Comcast didn’t properly process all the back-end paperwork, and by the time my dispute was settled on Comcast’s side, the associated account number had already been given to McCarthy, Burgess & Wolff.”
I concluded: “This isn’t your fault, or my fault. But it is very frustrating. So I’m not going to yell at you, because you didn’t do anything wrong. But I’m also not going to give you or your organization or Comcast any more money because I already paid this debt and at this point it’s a matter of principle.”
A long pause. I used this opportunity to get even more stoned. It was the best option available to me at the time as I had no more beer. The dogs in the distance had quieted, the sirens hadn’t. Russ had gone inside.
“Uh…OK.” Chet sounded bewildered but was, impressively, not daunted. “I’m uh…I just want to know how you’d like to take care of this payment. Are you able to resolve this outstanding debt today?”
“Chet, what you don’t realize is that we are pawns in a much larger game, facilitated by Comcast, using mafia tactics.”
“…I’m sorry, sir?”
“You know in movies where two guys from Providence wearing Italian suits show up at a mom-and-pop store and say, ‘Hey, this is a real bad neighborhood, so you better pay us for protection or else something bad might happen’? That’s what’s being done to me, except the guys in the suits are from Philadelphia. Of course I could end this all right now if I forked over 157 dollars. But I won’t, because that money is mine, and Comcast is a bully. It’s the principle of the thing, Chet. The principle. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“Uh…well…Mr. Weinstein, I’m just here to collect the debt you owe. I can’t say about…”
I cut him off.
“Chet, I’m impressed by your commitment, but we’ve covered this. Under no circumstances am I giving you, McCarthy, Burgess & Wolff, or Comcast any money other than my currently-up-to-date bill.” I desperately wanted more beer.
“So you’re disputing this attempt at collections?”
I dropped the schtick. I had found my out.
“Yes, Chet. I’m disputing this attempt at collections.”
“Look Chet, I’m on vacation. I’m going to go ahead and end this call but if you’d like to circle back with Comcast about my dispute through whatever channels are available to you, I’ll deal with this in a week when I’m back in the office.”
“Well, I, OK I guess…”
“OK then. Thanks Chet! Bye!” I hung up the phone. I briefly wondered if I made an error in not getting Chet’s contact information, but forgot about it quickly and opened another Spotted Cow.
Three weeks later, I was decidedly more sober, and hadn’t heard back from Chet or McCarthy, Burgess & Wolff. I hoped the matter was somehow magically resolved. The next day my phone started ringing.
“Hello, this is Demetra from McCarthy, Burgess & Wolff, is Louis Weenstone available?”
“Yes, this is Louis Weinstein.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Weinstein. Before we go any further I need to let you know that this is an attempt to collect a debt and this conversation may be recorded for training purposes.”
I was so disappointed. As it would turn out, Demetra was the only person who actually believed, or was nice enough to pretend to believe, that I didn’t owe Comcast any money. She responded to emails and phone calls promptly. Basically, the credit collection agency of McCarthy, Burgess & Wolff was overall more polite and easier to deal with than Comcast.
“Hi, Demetra. As I told Chet, who called me from your firm a few weeks ago, I do not owe Comcast any money. Chet was supposed to file an escalation with Comcast. I’m not mad at you but I’m also not going to be giving you any money. This is a mafia-style shakedown perpetrated by Comcast.” I’d settled on my stump speech.
“So you didn’t use Comcass services at your San Jose apartment?” Demetra never pronounced the T in Comcast, and now neither do I.
“No. I don’t have a San Jose apartment anymore. I haven’t since December. These charges are from January forward.”
“Oh. Well I don’t see an escalation here. Let me file one.”
I proceeded to tell Demetra the entire story and I could hear her typing away, recording it all. Once filed, she gave me her contact information and asked that I email her a formal statement of the dispute of charges. She also requested that I forward her a copy of the disconnect request I had sent to Natasha in March, which I did.
“Look. It’s gonna take a while to hear back from Comcass. All I can do is file and wait. We can’t stop the collections attempts, only escalate. In the meantime, you should contact their billing department and let them know to look out for an inbound dispute of collections. Maybe work them from both sides.”
I reluctantly agreed and we disconnected.
A few days later I called Comcast. As usual I had to be transferred multiple times and work through several prompts before I found someone in the billing department who could handle teleworker accounts. I then got to explain everything that had happened all over again. The billing specialist listened patiently and then said, “There’s nothing I can do for you. You’ll have to talk to our Billing and Collections department.”
She transferred my call.
“Hello!” an automated voice said. “You’ve reached McCarthy, Burgess & Wolff. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it at any time.”
I hung up.
I had run out of patience for the day. I should have called back but I knew if I tried again, I would not be able to refrain from saying “motherfuckers” many, many times, and I knew from years of being in customer service that that would only work against me.
Demetra and I kept in touch for the next two months. Indian summer turned to crisp fall. Demetra called back to inform me that nobody from Comcast had responded to her filed dispute and she would need to file again. I told her I had received a couple of other calls from her peers at D, B & W but had advised them that Demetra was handling the matter already. She said she couldn’t stop other collections calls because my name was in their database, which spat out contacts to be cold-called at random. I understood. She asked me to resend my formal dispute email so she could re-file with Comcast. I did. It was my birthday that day.
A few days later I tried to call Comcast. Again. If we had to re-file, I could at least re-call. For fun, I chose a wholly new set of prompts. I was connected with some sort of Executive Customer Service Account Manager, whose name was Shondra. She could find no record of anything I was talking about, so I had to tell my story from the beginning. Again. My officemate had returned from lunch. I knew he was listening.
When I finished my story, Shondra asked, “Do you have a record of any of these instances or calls?”
“Yes. I have several emails and case numbers that go back to 2014 documenting this entire saga.”
“Oh. OK. Could you send me those?”
“Sure. What is your email?”
We were coming up on the one-year mark for this fiasco. Mainly due to my penchant for mild opiates, I had handled myself with professionalism and patience in the face of some infuriating financial and professional injustices. I hadn’t yelled at anyone, including Comcast. I had been patient and respectful with the army of debt collectors. I had been a model customer. I say of all this, I suppose, as an excuse for what happened next.
“Oh,” Shondra said with an unreasonable degree of casual facticity, “we don’t have an inbound email here, so you’ll need to fax it.”
As if not having email at work was normal. As if it were 1990. As if she were saying something as plain and normal as “I enjoy coffee in the morning.” But that wasn’t what she was saying. She was saying that the executive customer service account managers for a mega-merger conglomerate internet service provider didn’t have an inbound email address. She was saying that to fix this problem, I would have to find a working fax machine. She broke me. I was undone.
“…What? WHAT? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? COMCAST ACCOUNT MANAGERS DON’T HAVE INBOUND EMAIL? DEMETRA FROM MCCARTHY, BURGESS & WOLFF HAS EMAIL BUT COMCAST DOESN’T? YOU MOTHERFUCKERS—”
I was suddenly redirected to a horrifying piece of staticky, guitar-sounding muzak on a ten-second loop. To her credit, Shondra returned in under five minutes.
“You know what, Mr. Weinstein? I was able to find a record of your previous calls in our database.”
“OH, WERE YOU!?”
“Yes sir. Please hold while I review these notes.”
“Mr. Weinstein, are you still there?”
“You know what, I found the disconnect request in our files. I’m sorry. That just never got processed.”
“You don’t say.”
“I’m going to take care of that right now and update your account. You don’t owe Comcast any of this money.”
“It makes me very happy to hear a representative of Comcast say that, but you’ll understand that I need your full name and contact information so that I can direct any future calls about this matter back to you.”
“Yes sir. I understand.”
We finished our conversation. I disconnected.
“That sounds…bad,” my officemate said from across the room.
“You have no idea.”
Shondra did what she promised. After 10 business days, I stopped hearing from McCarthy, Burgess & Wolff, which was sad in some ways. I hope Demetra is doing well. Aside from Shondra’s singular apology, Comcast didn’t acknowledge fault or offer any gesture of goodwill.
I would switch services, but Comcass is all my building’s wired for.
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