Personal Finance

How a Stranger’s Unpaid Bill Kept Me From Getting Cable

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Cable services are perennially among the companies customers say provide poor customer service. And that’s after the cable is connected and at least mostly working.

A reader named Kathy can’t seem to get even that far — her cable company tells her she’ll have to first pay somebody else’s bill:

I just moved into a(n) apartment complex in Indiana, and the former tenant had cable and did not disconnect it before he left for the Middle East, (and) he is in the military. The landlord told me it wasn’t their problem, it was ours. I would’ve never signed a lease if I knew I wasn’t able to get Internet or cable. Is there anything that we can do?

We asked attorney Henry Pharr III, a specialist in landlord-tenant rights and litigation with Horack Talley in Charlotte, N.C. He said different states regulate cable and other communications companies differently, but in general, it would be unusual for an account to be tied to real estate (like the apartment unit) rather than to the account. That way, if you move across town, you could likely keep your same cable account number and account history.

Pharr said in some cases, an employee of the cable or utility company might be hoping “to kill two birds with one stone” by getting the new tenant to also close out the former tenant’s account. In general, he said, going up the chain of command can help get the problem solved, but that process isn’t always simple. Pharr said that particularly in the case of monopoly companies, as cable companies sometimes are, there can be an “only fish in the fish tank” mentality that gives consumers little power. He said almost every state has a consumer protection division (the names vary, but you could search online to figure out what state agency to call) that has someone available to help counsel consumers who are having difficulty with a provider.

If Kathy wants to pursue legal action, a consumer/regulatory lawyer would likely be able to write a letter or make some phone calls to clear the situation up. If she chose that route, Kathy might want to check legal fees against the cost of paying the former tenant’s bill — as unfair as it would be for her to have to pay it.

Another option some consumers have successfully used is social media — it’s important to state facts accurately, but if the fact is “Company X refused to connect my cable until I paid a former tenant’s bill,” a hashtag might attract the attention of the company’s public relations staff.

But her cheapest, and possibly simplest, option is to check to see whether there is a state agency that helps ensure consumers are treated fairly.

Finally, it is worth noting that your cable company might check your credit when you sign up for service. This is why it’s always a good idea to stay on top of your credit — so that you’ll know where you stand when a company does inquire.  You can check your credit reports for free once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. There are also resources that also allow you to check your credit scores for free, like

More on Credit Reports and Credit Scores:

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