Cooking Sisters Caught in Cable Giant’s Tussle With Restaurants, Bars

Sisters say they were signed up for wrong service; DirecTV sees broader issue.

— -- When sisters Vanessa and Jessica Marquez created their “dream restaurant,” Papa Pita, in El Paso, Texas last year it was a lot of work. Setting up television service was the least of their worries … or so they thought.

But a year after a DirecTV salesman ordered their service, the sisters got the shock of their lives when DirecTV’s law firm billed them $15,000 and accused them of fraud.

Read Vanessa’s original letter to the ABC News Fixer below, and see how The Fixer helped get this resolved. Also, check out The Fixer’s tips on dealing with telephone and door-to-door salespeople.

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Dear ABC News Fixer: My sister and I opened our dream restaurant. When it came time to pick what TV service provider to use, we didn’t give it much thought. We chose DirecTV because they were the first company to contact us.

One year later we got a phone call from a law firm representing DirecTV, saying that we owe them $15,000, and we can pay $12,000 now and avoid a lawsuit. I talked to them and got the fine down to $5,000, which is still too much money for us.

The reason we are being fined is because the man set us up with a "residential" account, not a "business" account. I had no idea that there was even a difference. He came to the restaurant and we had no idea that our account was set up incorrectly.

They told us that we have no proof of not knowing. They also let us know that DirecTV has deep pockets and will sue us and we will end up paying even more, so we should just pay this. Please help.

- Vanessa Marquez, El Paso, Texas

Dear Vanessa: By the time you contacted the ABC News Fixer, you and your sister were so scared of ruining your credit over this, you had sent two payments totaling $1,200. But you said you couldn’t afford the rest -- not unless you laid off staff or took a second job.

The Fixer visited Papa Pita – it was named “Best Lunch Spot” and “Best New Restaurant” in El Paso -- and can personally vouch for the yummy spicy chicken pita sandwich. It was hard to imagine a salesman confusing your cozy eatery in a strip mall with any sort of residence. But that’s exactly how your DirecTV service was set up, as a residential account. Unfortunately, when this happened over a year ago, you didn’t get the salesman’s name, and DirecTV told us they didn’t have it, either.

Looking back, there were some strange things about this whole process. You described getting “dozens” of cold sales calls, from all sorts of area codes, from people trying to sell you DirecTV when your business first opened. Even now, after this, you continue to get calls from other independent agents selling DirecTV.

You also remember a strange customer who came in one day, sat down in the restaurant and asked someone to change the channel. She snapped a photo of the TV and left – and later a photo was included in the letter from the law firm retained by DirecTV to collect money from you.

Other mom-and-pop business owners – often small bars or restaurants -- have complained online and in news reports in recent years that they, too, were signed up for residential service without their knowledge and later accused of fraud.

We took your issue to Robert Mercer, spokesman for DirecTV, and showed him a photo of your restaurant, which is clearly a business. We explained that the salesman and installers were right there in the restaurant and had to have known it was not a house. The company promised to investigate. After several weeks of back-and-forth, we got a resolution: DirecTV promised not to pursue any further legal action against you; however, they declined to refund the $1,200 you had already paid, instead considering it a settlement.

DirecTV said in a statement, "Papa Pita's use of a residential account is a violation of our customer agreement and federal law. … In light of the circumstances and after further review, we have accepted [Ms. Marquez’s] word that she was unaware of the violation and have agreed not to pursue the matter."

As for complaints by other small businesses that the same thing has happened to them, the company declined to comment, but said in a 2007 press release that it was “turning up the heat on restaurants and bars that are misusing or misappropriating DirecTV programming.”

You told us you’re happy this is over. You also said you hope no one else gets into a jam like this.

So on that note, here’s The Fixer’s advice for handling telephone and door-to-door sales calls, whether for TV service or anything else, at work or at home:

- Sales people may be persistent, but you need to be just as strong. Resist pressure. Slow down.

- Compare offers of at least three vendors before you commit to anything.

- Read the contract. Carefully go over every word of a sales agreement, even if you need to finish the transaction at later time.

- Get all promises in writing. If what a sales person says isn’t in the contract, it doesn’t exist.

- The ABC News Fixer

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