In W. Va., Late-Bill Fee Is Solid

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Cable operators in West Virginia said they aren't expecting any punitive action now that state Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office has wrapped up its inquiry into late-bill service charges.

The state Consumer Protection Division late last year began an examination of cable companies' practice of charging consumers from $5 to $15 when employees are sent out to homes to collect late payments.

The truck-roll charge is levied in addition to any late fees, and assessed only if a consumer doesn't want to personally deliver a payment to the operator's offices in order to forestall service termination. West Virginia law bans collection fees.

The charge is not unique to the state. Other operators often charge delinquent consumers for a truck roll to the payee's house. For example, Charter Communications Inc. recently sent its Southern California customers a tariff card which lists a $30 "field reconnect fee."

West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association executive director Mark Polen said the levy is a service charge and doesn't even cover the actual cost of a truck roll. Consumers do not pay the fee if they go to the operator's office to make a payment, he noted.

"This is a recoverable cost under federal law," he said, adding that costs to consumers would be higher if no field-collection charge were levied.

Operators charge an average fee of $25 for reconnection and a consumer would probably have to wait for a service call.

The trade association has cooperated in what Polen called an informal inquiry, and has polled its members to collect data for the attorney general. The query was launched by a single consumer complaint, he said.

There is no question about the late fee itself. About four years ago, West Virginia enacted a law that set a $2 fee on past-due cable bills.

Trigger dates — which specify how long an operator must wait before threatening a late payer with a service interruption — have been troublesome in other states, but are not a topic in this inquiry, according to Polen.

The attorney general's office, which had earlier declined comment on a pending investigation, could not be reached for comment by press time.

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