Multiple State Attorneys General, including the AGs of Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, and Colorado, recently reached settlements with CenturyLink, a provider of internet, television, and telephone services, arising from allegations that the company had charged its customers hidden fees in violation of state consumer protection laws. As significant as the settlements themselves was the suggestion by some of those AGs that the issue of hidden fees would continue to be a priority for their offices. Washington Attorney General Robert Ferguson described the CenturyLink settlement as “the first major action of his office’s Honest Fees Initiative.”
In a similar vein, a large bi-partisan coalition of State Attorneys General (led by Delaware’s Attorney General) recently filed an amicus brief in a multi-district class action against CenturyLink in federal court in Minnesota, aiming to prevent the parties from settling the case in a manner that would bar the Minnesota AG from pursuing restitution for the challenged billings separately from the private litigation.
Hidden and/or deceptive charges added on to the increasingly complex bills that consumers receive for internet, telephone, and video services have been an area of focus for State Attorneys General in recent years. In 2014 and 2015, many State Attorneys General pursued actions against telecommunications carriers for “cramming” of unauthorized third party services into customers’ monthly bills. This focus by State AGs is unsurprising – the vast majority of their constituents receive these bills, and the bills occupy large percentages of many families’ household budgets.
The takeaway: Internet, television, and telephone service providers should be aware that State AGs will be scrutinizing the itemization of their customer billings. For companies that operate in multiple states, an action by a single State AG can rapidly expand to include dozens of independent state investigations and/or prosecutions.