Just One Click Away From a Giant Cable TV Bill

There are lots of ways video on demand services can leave unwitting subscribers owing lots of money to Hot or Yes.

Your TV remote has one potentially expensive button: It's the one with the three letters VOD. For the two broadcasters, Hot and Yes, video on demand has been the goose that lays the golden egg. For their subscribers, it risks becoming a drain on their wallets.

In the last year, the Consumer Council says it has received more than 100 complaints regarding the cable and satellite companies' VOD service. "VOD can be a huge expense, like cell phones were once - a black hole where you don't know exactly what it is you ordered or how much it will cost you," adds R., who l spoke on condition of anonymity.

In fact, the comparison of VOD to cell phone service, until the regulators stepped in to ban the worst abuses, is quite apt. Both pose a risk to the subscribers when someone presses a button - either by mistake or because a child got ahold of the device - and the bill comes in, sometimes on a regular monthly basis. The customers says, "I didn't order this" and the providers answers back, "Yes, you did." It's almost impossible to get compensation.

Here is the story of one subscriber, who wrote to the Consumer Council: "We are long-time customers of Hot. They informed us they were cancelling our analog service and that we had to take a digital converter even though my mother is elderly and after a stroke found it easier to use the analog control. They began billing us for VOD without our knowing. When I saw they were billing us too much I cancelled the VOD option. But I was surprised to learn that that they continued billing me. I live alone with my mother so it can't possibly be that someone else is using it. But the service representative insisted that the bill was correct and that someone was ordering it."

Child's play

The most common problem is children using VOD services. The biggest problem occurs when a one-time request for VOD is actually for a regular service that includes a fixed addition to your monthly bill. That is what happened to R. "Suddenly I saw that from May 2012 I was paying NIS 14.90 for the Children's Channel on VOD every month and another NIS 12.90 a month for the Next channel on VOD. When I contacted the call center they told me, 'It's written when you order it that this is a monthly subscription automatically renewed.' But it was the children who ordered it."

Thus an elderly subscriber wrote to the Consumer Council: "At Hot, under the VOD option, there are programs listed as 'free' without any payment involved, but nowhere is it written that there is a charge for ordering free programming. By accident, my grandson pressed on the VOD channel and they demanded payment of NIS 20 a month."

Even after the council approached Hot on the matter, the cable company refused to compensate the subscriber and instead offered "[free] access to an additional channel for a limited time."

The broadcasters can answer with some justice that access to VOD requires a password, but for many parents and grandparents that doesn't constitute much of a barrier. The children ask to see a show, so you give them the password. In any event, in two cases the council examined, the password didn't act to block unauthorized use.

In March 2012, right after moving apartments, another subscriber in a complaint to the council recalls how she contacted Yes and arranged to be hooked up. She received instructions by telephone on how to install the password to use VOD automatically and created one known only to herself.

"From then on I didn't get a bill. But on June 1, I discovered that I'd been paying hundreds of shekels a month, or some NIS 2,000 in the last few months for using [VOD]. When I contacted the company they said I had downloaded lots and lots of movies," she said. "I found out that the password didn't necessarily stop anyone from seeing movies. The children were freely downloading movies without understanding what they were doing."

She explained this to Yes, which responded by demanding that the bill be covered. Inbal, a subscriber from the center of the country, says that she has a young relation who is autistic. "When he comes to visit, he orders movies from VOD. He looks at them for a minute and then goes on to another. I set a password, but somehow he succeeded in ordering them anyhow," she says. "It's all happened to me, that I've ordered a movie and the VOD doesn't ask for a password.."

After lengthy arguments, Yes agreed to compensate her for part of the money. "I've learned that when he comes for a visit, I remove the VOD from the power." Yes denies that passwords can be circumvented or don't always act to block access to VOD.

'Bill shock'

Many subscribers only discover what they have been paying after months go by, a phenomenon the Consumer Council calls "bill shock." The reason is that the cable and satellite companies are not required to send their customers monthly bills but can post them on a channel the subscribers get. Indeed, that is the default method unless the subscribers ask for a bill by mail. That makes it more difficult to monitor bills and discover mistakes in them, says the council.

Another complaint is that it is difficult to get a detailed list of the content ordered on VOD from the broadcasters. "I asked customer service to give a list of the films I had ordered and was told no. They said they were willing to read me the list and I could write them down one by one," complained a Hot subscriber to the council.

The Consumer Council says the time has come for regulators to crackdown on VOD practices.It is calling for licenses to require broadcasters to send monthly bills by mail like other communications providers. It also wants licenses to require that VOD and other paid channels be blocked unless a subscriber specifically orders them by use of a private code or some other technology that ensures that he or she knows the payment required.

Hot says it offers adequate protection for its subscribers. "Our customers can, by pressing the button on their remote, via Channel 400, either order to remove Hot VOD services, as well as to completely block them or to limit purchases that can be fixed in advance," it responded to TheMarker. "Hundreds of thousands of subscribers use the channel."

At Yes the response was similar. "We enable every customer interested in it to block programming or limit the maximum amount purchased on VOD services via the remote."

The Consumer Council urges VOD subscribers to turn to the provider when they have a complaint. An amendment to the Consumer Protection Law that went into effec this year requires businesses to respond to a complaint about overcharging within 10 days of receiving it. If the complaint is justified, they must repay the full amount with interest and inflation-linkage as plus NIS 16 compensation.

Sharona Gonen