"The company just kept the money," said Portman in a Senate hearing Thursday accompanying the report. "In my view, that's a ripoff."
The practice isn't limited to TWC. Portman and McCaskill's investigation also reveals that Charter Communications — which now owns TWC — earned more than $1.3 million in overcharges between January and April of this year.
The extra charges stem from mismatches in the companies' systems that bill customers for cable boxes they don't actually have in their homes. In response to the probe, the two companies have agreed to conduct regular audits to be sure their billing is accurate. TWC said Thursday it only makes mistakes on 0.07 percent of its television bill and 0.03 percent of its Internet bills. Charter said that it makes mistakes on 0.6 percent of its bills, which translates to mistaken billing concerning 63,000 cable boxes.
Even though proportionally that's low, that's still a lot of people affected by the practice, said Portman.
Industry officials said in the hearing that overbilling is comparatively rare.
"We're undercharging customers significantly more than we're overcharging them," said John Keib, a hearing witness who was until recently Time Warner Cable's executive vice president of residential services. "That's noteworthy in the context of this conversation."
Portman said he wasn't satisfied by that answer, arguing that no matter how many customers were being undercharged, that didn't help those customers who were still being overcharged.
McCaskill went further in a separate report she published Thursday, documenting the anxiety-inducing interactions between consumers and companies that have helped put the industry at the bottom of customer-satisfaction rankings. She accused the industry of playing a big game of "hide the ball" so that consumers cannot get the best price without jumping through hoops or having inside knowledge. She explained that she herself had been on the receiving end of a retention agent's efforts to redirect her anger when she found out she was being charged for a "protection plan" she never agreed to sign up for.
"There are so many things about this business model that is asking consumers to be upset," she said to the hearing's industry witnesses. "Nobody knows how to get the best price from you guys. Nobody knows. There's a secret sauce somewhere [to getting what you want]. And I think it has to do with being really mad."
Pay-TV companies point to the rising content costs they have to pay programmers in order to get the rights to air popular shows and movies as a source of the problem. These costs are growing at three times the rate of other goods and services, according to Rasesh Patel, a senior vice president at AT&T Entertainment Group. (AT&T owns DirecTV, one of the firms that the Senate investigated in its report.)
Partly as a result of the Senate probe, Charter and Time Warner Cable have agreed to grant credits to customers who have been affected by overbilling. How will that work? Well, in the case of Time Warner Cable, if you're currently being overcharged for a cable box you don't actually lease, you'll be granted a one-month credit that's worth the amount of that equipment fee, thereby offsetting the overcharge. If you're getting charged incorrectly for two boxes, you'll get two boxes' worth of credit, and so on. Customers will get an automatic credit if the company's periodic audit reveals a mistake on their bills. Charter, meanwhile, is giving its affected customers a one-year credit on their equipment fees right off the bat.
"I will never be satisfied until we have zero instances of overbilling," said Kathleen Mayo, Charter's executive vice president of customer operations, in her Senate testimony Thursday.
The company did not commit to Portman's request that it refund customers for the full amount they have been overcharged to date.
It's conceivable that someday, overbilling for set-top boxes may become obsolete. The industry appears to be moving toward digital apps that let you access your pay-TV channels without the need for a rented box. Still, that doesn't mean mistakes won't happen, particularly in other parts of your service. And that's how congressional reports such as these can potentially help.