The names some cable customers are being called after contacts with the companies that provide them services can be staggeringly profane: scatological and sexual, with allusions to body parts and perverted acts.
They are often mailings of things like bills. Almost all of the names defy mention in a news story, but for some sense of it, here is one of the more temperate ones, received by a female Comcast customer: Super Bitch, which was first reported in the Chicago Tribune earlier this month.
On Wednesday, a Time Warner Cable Inc. customer in Orange County, Calif., received a cancellation letter with her first name changed to a derisive four-letter term for female genitalia.
Esperanza Martinez, 34, said she was shocked at the profanity. She had called Time Warner Cable about an issue with her set-top box and had what she thought was a satisfactory conversation with a representative Feb. 12. Then, bang, the Feb. 16 letter.
When this treatment began, and why, is not really certain. But it seems to be happening more than once in a while.
"The only thing I can think is, that this was a disgruntled customer-service rep," Martinez said Thursday.
Time Warner Cable spokeswoman Susan Leepson said the the cable company was "sorry for the disgraceful treatment of Ms. Martinez, and have reached out to her to apologize directly."
Leepson said Time Warner Cable's investigation showed that Martinez's first name had been changed by an employee at an outside vendor. Time Warner Cable terminated its relationship with the vendor, Leepson said.
Officials at Time Warner Cable and Comcast, the nation's largest and second-largest cable companies, cannot explain the recent rash of name changes on customer bills, though publicity around the proposed merger of the two companies may have brought attention to the issue.
Comcast and Time Warner Cable distribute TV channels to more than 30 million cable subscribers and have some of the lowest customer-satisfaction ratings of all U.S. companies.
Observers say the cable companies need tighter controls over customer-service operations and perhaps to boost pay for service employees who answer calls of frustrated and sometimes angry subscribers.
There seem to be "super unpleasant" conversations between the call center employees and the subscribers, said David Hoffman, professor of corporate and contract law at Temple University. "The [customer service] reps take vengeance in the only way they can."
By itself, changing a customer's name is not illegal, nor does it seem to violate consumer-protection regulations, Hoffman and government regulators say.
But Hoffman said the timing of the name changes was unfortunate for Comcast, which has been lobbying government officials to approve its acquisition of Time Warner Cable.
Meanwhile, surprises keep coming.
On Feb. 6, the Chicago Tribune reported that Comcast changed the first name of Mary Bauer, 63, of Addison, Ill.
Bauer, a municipal clerk, had complained about problems with her X1 set-top box, which had resulted in 39 service calls. Bauer refused to open the bill with the profane name change. Comcast apologized to Bauer and agreed to give her two years of free service, the newspaper reported.
The Tribune reported in 2005 that Comcast similarly changed the name of Elgin, Ill., resident LaChania Govan to a term that refers to a female dog after she complained about poor cable service. At the time, a Comcast spokesman apologized and said the company was "putting things in place so that it will never happen again."
Comcast says it has gotten ahead of the recent problem. The Philadelphia company has broadened the list of inappropriate words with which it scans bills being sent to residents and searches more fields in the bill for inappropriate words, spokeswoman Jenni Moyer said Friday.
She said a team at Comcast was looking into profane name changes for mailings to customers.
Three employees at outside vendors who changed Comcast subscriber names no longer work on Comcast accounts, the company said. Comcast also has terminated its relationship with one of the vendors, whose employee was involved in a name change, Comcast said.
In late January, consumer blogger Christopher Elliott posted an item on a Spokane, Wash., Comcast customer whose first name was changed to an unsavory word that refers to a body part. "I don't know what to say anymore," Elliott said last week after hearing of Martinez's demeaning experience.
"I've been covering customer-service issues for more than 20 years and I have never seen anything like this," he added.
Elliott also has posted a Comcast bill in which a woman's first name was prefaced with the term for a prostitute.