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Column: Renew your service or we'll trash your credit score, Spectrum tells ex-customer

·5 min read
CHINA - 2021/04/23: In this photo illustration the American telecommunications company Spectrum logo seen displayed on a smartphone with USD (United States dollar) currency in the background. (Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
In a strangely threatening letter, cable giant Spectrum warns a former customer he'll be reported as a deadbeat unless he renews his subscription. (SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty)

Steve Schklair wonders why he's being muscled by cable giant Spectrum.

"It's been years since I've even been a subscriber," he told me.

Nevertheless, the Altadena resident received a strange letter from Spectrum saying that, "as a one-time courtesy," the company will cancel debt it claims he owes and stop reporting him as a deadbeat to credit agencies — if he agrees to resume cable service.

"A well-established credit history will more likely allow you to qualify for lower mortgage rates, better chances for obtaining credit cards and approvals for home rentals," the letter says, suggesting that Schklair's finances could be in serious trouble unless he returns to the Spectrum fold.

"You have worked hard to build a great future for yourself and your family," it says. "We look forward to welcoming you back."

Maybe it's just me, but that has a Sopranos-like ring of "You've made a nice life for yourself. Be a shame if something happened to it."

A Spectrum spokesperson confirmed the letter's authenticity and called it "an opportunity to reconnect" with the cable company. Spectrum partners with the Los Angeles Times on a nightly TV show.

All subscription-based businesses work hard to retain and renew customer relationships. It's common for such businesses to entice former subscribers to return with discounts and sweetheart deals.

I've never before seen a pitch that so blatantly threatens harm unless you come around.

The Spectrum letter tells Schklair that, despite his alleged fiscal irresponsibility, resuming cable service will allow him "to come back in good standing as a new customer."

"And when you become a customer," it says, "we will both remove your debt and cease reporting it to any credit bureau."

Like me, Schklair took that as a not-so-veiled warning that the company will make things rough for him unless he plays ball.

"It seems like corporate blackmail," he said. "The letter is filled with real and implied threats."

I asked if he owes Spectrum any money.

"No," Schklair replied. "It's been years since I was their customer, and they've never said anything about my not paying any bills."

No notices of missed payments?

"No."

No warnings about adverse reports to credit agencies?

"No, nothing like that."

Yet Spectrum's letter explicitly says that if he resumes cable service, the company will "cease reporting" Schklair's "prior debt" to credit agencies. That wording implies Spectrum has already submitted such reports.

Any negative report on your credit file can lower your credit score, making it harder to borrow money at reasonable interest rates or perform financial activities such as refinancing a mortgage.

"To take advantage of this special debt removal offer," Spectrum's letter says, "all you have to do is purchase a Spectrum TV, internet and/or voice product."

It specifically encourages him to sign up for internet service at an introductory rate of $49.99 a month for the first 12 months. After that, the price jumps to $74.99 monthly — a 50% increase.

At my request, Schklair checked his credit file. He said the only financial misstep shown was a tardy credit card payment in January 2020, when he was out of the country.

"There is no negative hit from Spectrum," he said.

This suggests the company hasn't actually reported his purportedly unpaid bills. And if that's the case, it would make Spectrum's letter not just threatening but also misleading. Maybe "dishonest" is a better word.

Schklair said he made two calls to Spectrum to see what was happening. Both service reps, he said, found no outstanding obligations.

I shared all this with Spectrum and requested some clarification. Dennis Johnson, a spokesperson for the company, declined to discuss details of Schklair's situation.

He said letters like the one Schklair received are sent to numerous former customers who may have billing issues. The letters are intended to help indebted people find their way back into the financial light, he said.

"The offer eliminates their past-due balance and stops reporting of that debt to any credit bureau — both good things for the consumer — and, yes, invites them to reconnect with Spectrum internet at a promotional price," Johnson said.

Giving the company the benefit of the doubt, it's laudable for Spectrum to be willing to forgo outstanding debt and to help people maintain good credit.

But I've read the letter to Schklair multiple times, and I'm still wondering why Spectrum's supposedly good intentions are expressed in such an aggressively tough-love fashion.

Here's the key line again: "And when you become a customer, we will both remove your debt and cease reporting it to any credit bureau."

Which is to say, if you don't return as a Spectrum customer, the company will go after, or keep going after, your credit score.

That's not a promotional offer. It's a shakedown.

Even if Schklair does owe Spectrum some cash, there have to be more palatable ways of dealing with it than threatening fiscal harm unless he commits to giving the company money on a regular basis.

The average cable bill is $116 a month.

I asked Schklair how he felt about Spectrum's response to my inquiries.

"They threatened to destroy my credit," he replied. "That's sleazy."

Maybe Spectrum just figured it was an offer he couldn't refuse.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.