September 25, 2012
Carol Scott's idea of unwinding at home is ordering a movie from Time Warner Cable's pay-per-view service, maybe a nice romantic comedy or an engaging mystery.
It's not watching tons of porn.
So Scott, 52, a healthcare lawyer for a prominent Los Angeles law firm, was understandably surprised when she looked at a recent cable bill and saw that she owed $154.65 for ordering 17 adult movies over a span of just four days.
She was equally taken aback when a Time Warner service rep insisted that the charges were legitimate.
"He told me they don't make mistakes," Scott said. "He said I must have watched all those movies."
Scott's experience highlights the challenge of making your case to intransigent service reps. It also suggests that cable networks, like computer networks, may not be the secure fortresses that telecom companies would have you believe.
Scott told me she's never ordered an adult movie on pay-per-view, and said Time Warner's records would verify that. So she figured it wouldn't be difficult to demonstrate to the company that her bill was screwy.
"It's like when there's fraud on your credit card," Scott said. "The credit card company can tell when there's something that doesn't fit your pattern."
Besides, you'd have to be hankering for a serious dose of smut to order adult movies in the way Scott's bill indicated she'd done.
On one day, the bill shows, a dirty movie was ordered at 9:55 a.m., followed by additional orders at 9:57, 10:03, 10:04, 10:05 and 10:06. Each movie came with a $7.98 charge.
Two days later, according to the bill, Scott's craving for porn returned in a big way with orders for adult movies at 10:39 a.m. and 10:40, and again at 2 p.m., 2:01, 2:03 and 2:04.
She was apparently in such a randy mood, the bill shows that two adult movies were simultaneously ordered twice that day at 2:03 p.m. and 2:04.
The next day, a little more afternoon delight was seemingly in order. Scott's bill indicates that two more adult movies were ordered, at 12:15 p.m. and immediately after at 12:16.
Unfortunately, Time Warner's bill doesn't specify the titles of the various films, so we can only guess at the range of tastes on display.
You don't have to be a technical wizard to suspect there's something hinky here. Even if one wanted to assume that Scott was rapidly sampling everything on Time Warner's porn shelf, why would she suddenly develop such an extreme fancy after many years of tamer movie selections?
But the cable company's service rep refused to see it that way.
"He said his computer showed that the movies definitely streamed into my TV," Scott recalled. "He said someone else at the house must have done it."
Scott had some workers building a patio outside. The contractor, whom Scott said she's known for years, assured her that no one had been inside her home. Her housekeeper, who helps clean a couple of days a week, also said she hadn't been watching any TV.
In any case, Scott wanted to make sure that whatever had happened wouldn't happen again. So she asked the Time Warner rep to activate a parental control that would block future orders for any adult movies.
"He said he couldn't do that," Scott told me. "He said all he could do was block all pay-per-view."
She reluctantly agreed to shut down her entire pay-per-view service.
This was, of course, completely unnecessary. All cable providers offer parental filters that can block adult content.
If Time Warner's service rep had actually known what he was talking about, he'd have informed Scott that programs can be filtered by rating, channel, time or even title. All you need is an identification number to change the settings.
But apparently what happened to Scott is a sensitive subject for Time Warner. Jim Gordon, a company spokesman, declined to discuss her case or how all that porn ended up on her bill.
Nor would he comment on the alarmingly shoddy level of service Scott received.
"We take customer privacy seriously, which we know our customers appreciate, and as such we are not able to comment on a particular customer's account," Gordon said.
Scott said that since I started nosing around, she's received mixed messages from the cable company.
Two service reps have insisted that the porn orders were legitimate and must have been made from inside the house, she said. Two others have said it's possible an electrical short caused the funny orders, or that perhaps Scott's cable account was hacked from elsewhere.
I don't know about electrical shorts, but a quick online search turns up various reports of cable customers encountering unexpected charges for porn.
Tech experts say that digital cable networks are just like any other digital network and that determined hackers can find a way in.
Asked whether cable boxes can be breached, Time Warner's Gordon suggested I take up the matter with Motorola, a leading maker of the company's hardware. A Motorola spokeswoman said only that "Motorola's set-top security is unsurpassed."
At this point, all Scott knows for sure is that her pay-per-view service has been restored and that she now has a filter to block orders of adult content.
Oh, and Time Warner told her she doesn't have to pay that $154.65 after all.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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