Test pattern: Dish rebates prove elusive

Last week I wrote about Ann Neumark's frustration because she can't get local stations on Dish Network; last January I wrote about Elizabeth Sutton's frustration because she couldn't get her $140 rebate from DirecTV ["Satellite hassle," January 3, 2003]. Now I'm writing to say that Sutton's case was just one of hundreds– and to report that, in a move that was ultimately blocked by the Justice Department, Dish Network and DirecTV came very close to merging.

Sutton's gripe was actually with Prime TV, which is one of the companies that sell satellite dishes and receivers to DirecTV's customers. In April 2002, she responded to an ad promising free equipment if she signed up for a year of DirecTV. The installer gave her the rebate form, which she mailed sometime in May to Prime TV's headquarters in Southern Pines, North Carolina.

It took seven months– of phone calls, letters, and, finally, a complaint to the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs– to get her $140 rebate.

I got involved at the tail end of the conflict, and although my involvement was brief, it was a real eye-opener as to Prime TV's idea of how to interact with the public. A customer service supervisor, for instance, declared that no one in the company would be able to speak to me, said, "Have a nice day," and hung up on me.

Thanks to an unhappy Prime TV customer in the Chicago area who found my January column in an internet search, I now know that Prime TV has come under scrutiny from the North Carolina Attorney General's office for its pattern of failing to issue rebates in a timely manner. John Bason, public information officer for the North Carolina Department of Justice, says in an email that his office "has received a total of 534 complaints against Prime TV." He goes on to say that the "overwhelming majority" have been resolved; 12 remain open.

Not all DirecTV promotions are problematic, by the way. For instance, according to Steve Mullen, senior public relations representative for Circuit City in Richmond, the rebate offered in the chain's DirecTV promotions comes from Circuit City itself and not the equipment manufacturer– and, in any case, Prime TV isn't one of their suppliers.

Now, for the almost-marriage of the only two satellite TV companies in the U.S. In October 2001, the parent companies of Dish Network (EchoStar Communications Corp.) and DirecTV (General Motors Hughes) decided to merge. Among other things, this would have meant that all satellite TV customers would have been able to receive local stations.

In October 2002, however, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the merger. No doubt at least a few souls in markets such as Charlottesville, where it's impossible to receive local stations– such as NBC29 in Charlottesville or WVPT, the Harrisonburg PBS affiliate– are thinking that maybe, just this once, Uncle Sam should have blessed a monopoly.


The disappearing tree guy

 It took Leni Covington three years to save the $300 she needed to have some tree work done– which makes the job's outcome an even bigger pill to swallow. Before I tell her story, let me explain that I'm going to refer to the workman only by his initials, E.D., because I haven't been able to reach him. I'm hoping that Hook readers will help me contact him.

Covington claims that E.D. promised in July 2002 to do the work they agreed on. She was about to leave town until September, so she left the $300 check with her son– who would be staying in the house– and told him to pay E.D. when he was finished. She neglected, however, to specify what the job consisted of, and her son handed over the check without asking to see E.D.'s work.

Covington claims that E.D. completed only about $50 worth of the $300 job, so she began calling him. At first, she says, he promised to come and finish the job, but then his phone was disconnected. Furthermore, she can't file a suit in General District Court without an address. If you have any idea how to contact E.D., email or call me and, if you've got the right guy, I'll pass the information on to Covington.

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