State, CenturyLink settle suit over billing practices


ST. PAUL — Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and CenturyLink have reached an agreement on the communications company's pricing practices, Swanson's office announced Monday, Oct. 30.

In July, Swanson sued CenturyLink, claiming the company had billed customers higher amounts than its sales agents had quoted. On Friday, an Anoka County judge signed a court order requiring CenturyLink to disclose all terms of price at the time of the sale.

"I think people need to have fair and accurate prices to be able to shop around for internet and television services, and this order requires the company to make clear and conspicuous disclosures at the time of the sale of what their prices are, what their fees are, any limitations on the deal and how long the deal lasts," Swanson said Monday.

Swanson also hoped to achieve restitution and civil penalties from the lawsuit, and said this is just an initial court order to stop the practice while the lawsuit continues.

CenturyLink said in a statement Monday that it is happy with the agreement and will continue to work with the attorney general. It previously said it has cooperated with Swanson's office since the investigation began.

"Many of the enhanced customer disclosures we agreed to were already in progress as part of our ongoing commitment to our customers and our desire to continue to improve our customers' experience," the company said. "Our goal is to ensure that our customers understand the terms of service at the point of sale."

What the court order requires

The court order, signed by Anoka County Chief District Judge Douglas Meslow, prohibits CenturyLink from making false statements about the prices and terms of its products and from charging more than it quotes, whether it is selling its own services and products or DirecTV's. If the company does misquote a price, it is not allowed to charge a higher amount, according to the court order.

CenturyLink is now required to clearly disclose at the time of the sale:

— The monthly base price.

— Monthly recurring fees on top of the base price.

— Any one-time fees.

— The amount of the first invoice and future invoices.

— The time period for which the quoted prices apply.

— Restrictions on a consumer's ability to receive the quoted price.

Customer complaints focused on billing

CenturyLink customers previously said they were overcharged by CenturyLink, often saying they were charged at least twice as much as they said they were promised.

The state's lawsuit gives examples: A Blaine customer was quoted a $39.97 base monthly rate for cable service, but was charged $71.97; a Columbia Heights customer was quoted $14.95 for a base monthly rate for internet service, but was charged $29.95. Many customers were charged hundreds of dollars more than they were quoted over the course of several months.

Swanson said her office has continued to receive floods of complaints, even since the lawsuit was filed.

CenturyLink said it offers many ways for consumers to contact it with complaints.

"Should our customers have questions or concerns, we offer a variety of methods for them to contact us, including online chat, email or by calling the toll-free number on their bill," the company said.

In 2011, Swanson obtained a consent judgment with DirecTV — whose products and services CenturyLink sells — that held DirecTV to similar standards. The company was prohibited from misrepresenting its prices and was required to clearly disclose any conditions or limitations that could alter the price quoted.