Satellite hassle: Look up, down... all around

Twice during the last couple of weeks, ads for Directv have popped up while I've been online– and when I walked into Circuit City one evening before Christmas, I practically tripped over signs touting free stuff. The timing seemed auspicious, as I'd been thinking quite a bit about Directv since December 2.

That's when Elizabeth Sutton emailed me about her experience with Directv – or, more precisely, with Prime TV, which is the company that supplies the satellite dish and receiver for the service.

The Suttons live too far out for cable, and so, "After resisting for years, last April we finally decided to get rid of the antenna in the tree in our back yard and sign up, lured by tempting TV ads promising that Prime TV would give free equipment if you signed up for a year's worth of service with Directv for a bargain rate of around $39 [a month]."

Carl Rasmussen, who had a contract with Prime TV for this region, installed the equipment in April. Sutton gave him a check for $140, and he gave her a rebate form and instructions for filling it out. She sent all the paperwork to Prime TV in Southern Pines, North Carolina, sometime in May. On May 22 she called the company and claims she was told the rebate had been "approved for payment," which would supposedly arrive in "four to six weeks."

Six weeks came and went with no check. She called again on August 26 and 30, and yet again on September 11. According to Sutton, during the last call a customer service representative named Felicia promised to investigate but never called back.

"I have spent about 12 hours on hold, calling, writing, etc.," she wrote, "only to [get] endless answering trees that have no people behind them. And needless to say, no check has come. This is maddening."

On the same day she emailed me, she filled a complaint with the state's Office of Consumer Affairs at its website (vdacs.state.va.us). The Office sent a copy of Sutton's complaint to Prime TV, along with a letter asking that they work directly with Sutton and attempt to settle the dispute "voluntarily." Prime TV responded quickly and wrote the OCA to say that a check would be issued. Finally, on December 23, it was.

I spoke with Rasmussen, who said that he will no longer install Prime TV's equipment, because of the number of customers who have had trouble getting their rebates. I experienced some frustration myself. The first time I called, December 5, the company's computers had been hit by the ice storm that had crippled North Carolina, but an employee named Stacy promised to research Sutton's situation and call me when the computers were back up. She never did.

Things were no better when I tried again on January 2. Even though Sutton had her check, I wanted to ask a few questions about the company's track record with rebates. This time I spoke with a customer service supervisor, Rebecca, who insisted that since her manager was on vacation, there was no one at Prime TV who could talk to me. When I pressed her on that point, she said, "Have a nice day"– and hung up on me.

So much for customer service.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.