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Battling Goliath

May 2011

Verna Cerace's bank account racked up over $200 in "non-sufficient funds" charges in a matter of days. As far as she knew, she had plenty of money in her account.

After some detective work with the bank, it turned out not to be identity theft but instead stemmed from an unauthorized charge made to her account by her satellite television provider, DirecTV.

"I was moving from Redding to Central Point to be near my family because of my cancer," says Cerace. "

I cancelled all my utilities. DirecTV said they'd send me a bill." That bill included a $120 early termination fee on top of her usual monthly charges despite the fact that Cerace was not terminating the contract by choice, but rather for health reasons. (Her new residence would not permit satellite television.)

Instead of billing her, DirecTV withdrew the money directly from Cerace's checking account, something it was not authorized to do. Cerace's monthly social security check had not yet arrived so her account did not have enough in it to pay the bill early.

DirecTV had Cerace's bank debit card account number on file, a company requirement for opening an account. Their standard operating procedure, one they used with many other customers, was to send monthly bills instead of using direct withdrawal. Cerace had always paid these bills by check and so had no reason to believe DirecTV would dip into her account by using her debit card on file.

Cerace turned for assistance to Senior Services at the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. They in turn referred her to Help Now!

"What ended up being the key to this case was that DirecTV did not follow its own policy," says Jolie Wilson, the Help Now! advocate who worked on this case.

According to Wilson, DirecTV was supposed to wait 20 days before trying to recoup their "closeout" bill from a customer. In this case, they only waited five days from when they told Cerace they would bill her.

Cerace's bank had earlier agreed to forgive $42, a small portion of the total overdraft charges. The bank maintained that, if the overdraft were DirecTV's fault, that company should reimburse Cerace. DirecTV resisted paying or even acknowledging responsibility for its error to Cerace when she had called them.

A friend of Cerace's had brought to her attention a newspaper article about class action lawsuits pending against DirecTV by various states: consumer protection agencies. The lawsuits involved DirecTV's utilizing similar billing procedures with other customers as they had with Cerace. Not content to await the outcome of those pending actions, Help Now!'s advocates applied their efforts specifically to Cerace's situation.

Help Now! advocates made several calls to DirecTV, climbing the corporate ladder as they did so. At one level, the supervisor agreed to refund the $120 early termination fee in view of Cerace's circumstances. Not satisfied with just that amount, Help Now!'s advocates pursued the matter to the next higher level where a department manager agreed to pay for all of the bank overdraft charges. The argument about DirecTV's not following its own 20-day policy was persuasive to her.

"It shows the power of persistence," says Wilson. "It's all about getting to the right person."