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Consumer Watch: Breaking up is hard to do

Not reading the fine print on TV contracts can be costly.

You'll find the Rev. Lester Griffin on the pulpit at Maranatha Baptist Church in Northeast Philadelphia on Sundays, preaching the Gospel. Lately, though, he's been devoting at least a little of his well-tuned sense of righteous indignation toward a more earthly, if not strictly earthbound, subject: DirecTV.

For the last few months, Griffin has been fighting with the satellite-television company over $430 in "early termination" charges.

DirecTV says he owes the money because he canceled a two-year contract. Griffin says he was unaware he had signed a contract until after the California company sent a bill demanding the fee. He's standing his ground, even after DirecTV sent the bill to a collection agency.

You might see Griffin's story as just another cautionary tale about the importance of reading everything before you affix your signature.

Griffin concedes the point right away: "Evidently I signed a contract - at my age I should know that," says the 64-year-old pastor.

But as I explored his complaint, I began to wonder whether right and wrong were so plain here. Like some of the best Bible stories, this one comes with twists and turns and raises some troubling questions.

Griffin's story began in January, when the minister and his wife, Darla, an assistant bank manager, were looking to save on their monthly Comcast bill, which had crept above $150 a month. So they were ripe for the plucking when Verizon offered them its cablelike "Triple Freedom Bundle": phone, Internet, and pay-TV service for $79.99 a month.

Verizon has been rolling out its premier fiber-optic FiOS service for several years, and started serving some city neighborhoods last month. But to compete in the meantime with cable companies' popular "triple plays," Verizon entered a partnership five years ago with DirecTV.

The deal appealed to Griffin, even when he realized that various extras, including a receiver for visiting grandkids to use, would push the price higher. "I expected a monthly bill of about $120, based on a very long conversation with Verizon," he recalls.

The trouble was, Griffin's actual bills began coming in at about $160. "Forty dollars may not sound like much, but it is to us," he told me.

This is where the story gets a little messy, because Griffin and Verizon don't fully agree on how to explain the discrepancy. The bottom line seems to be that by the time Griffin realized his $120-a-month understanding was wrong, the damage had already been done - he just didn't know it yet.

DirecTV says Griffin had formally agreed to its terms - including the early-termination fee - on the day of installation, when the installer handed him paperwork to read and sign.

Spokesman Robert G. Mercer says Griffin should have already known about the fee, which he says would have been mentioned in his sign-up call with Verizon and was outlined in a preinstallation "Congratulations" letter that confirmed his appointment and said, "Please take a moment to review your order."

Griffin sees things differently. He doesn't recall any mention of a contract during the sign-up call, nor even receiving the letter. On the day DirecTV came, he thought he was simply signing for the equipment and the installation. "When the fellow got ready to leave, he just said I need to sign something," he says.

Griffin also says there was no mention of the fee when, unhappy with his bills, he called Verizon to cancel. But then he got his first-ever bill directly from DirecTV: $430, mostly for the early-cancellation fee.

Mercer graciously provided me a copy of DirecTV's preinstallation letter, and also a blank copy of the contract the company says Griffin signed. But rather than confirm that Griffin had simply made a careless error and was paying for it, the documents raise more questions - as did the fact that over the last three years, the company has amassed more than 35,000 complaints to the Better Business Bureau, most of them involving its contracts.

Why, for instance, is the contract titled "DirecTV Equipment Lease Addendum" rather than, say, "Terms and Conditions" or "Service Agreement"?

"It's called a lease addendum because we want the customer to understand that they are leasing this equipment from DirecTV, and these are the terms of the lease," Mercer says. "It's pretty clear that it is a commitment that they are signing, whether you call it a lease addendum or a contract."

For a second opinion, I contacted Hofstra University law professor Norm Silber, a specialist in contracts and consumer law.

Silber says DirecTV's contract terms and "Byzantine sign-up procedures" push the edge of what's reasonable.

"For a major corporation with substantial resources available, it's just extraordinarily disappointing, and I think it's probably misleading," Silber says.

One thing that won't disappoint to Griffin is DirecTV's final response to his complaint.

On Friday, acknowledging that Griffin had been confused by how to apply for an $18-a-month rebate that would have lowered his bill, Mercer said DirecTV was waiving his cancellation fee.

Mercer said DirecTV believed its terms were properly communicated and urged customers to read anything they sign.

As Griffin knows, that's always good advice.