Ken Gray lost everything in August when his two-bedroom cabin burned to the ground in the devastating Station fire, the largest blaze in recorded Los Angeles County history.
The last thing he figured he needed to worry about were the two satellite-TV receivers consumed by the flames.
DirecTV had other ideas. The company deducted $279.87 from Gray's bank account to cover the cost of its burned-to-a-crisp boxes, plus taxes.
"It's hard to believe," Gray, 63, told me. "What I'd like to do is take a shovel full of ashes from my cabin and dump it on their desk. They can have their receivers back."
OK, so maybe what happened to Gray isn't the most egregious example of corporate heartlessness -- our friends in the health insurance industry set the bar pretty high on that score.
But his story illustrates how companies need to do a whole lot better job of making sure their customer service folk know what they're talking about, and that they're not, inadvertently or otherwise, doing more harm than good.
Gray's cabin in the Vogel Flats area of Big Tujunga Canyon was one of more than 70 structures lost in the Station fire, which erupted Aug. 26 and burned more than 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest.
Little remains of Gray's home. The stone foundation is still there, as is the tall stone fireplace that once dominated the living room. Everything else is ash and debris.
"I lost so many really valuable things," Gray said, his voice cracking slightly. "I was there for 28 years. It's all gone."
The greatest blow is that this is where his husband passed away late last year. They were married just a few months earlier, during that brief window in which California was treating all couples with equal respect and dignity.
"A lot of things that were memories of our time together were in that cabin," Gray said.
There was, of course, much to do after the flames had been doused. Eventually, Gray got around to contacting DirecTV in September and canceling his satellite service.
"I told them my house had burned to the ground and that I wouldn't need DirecTV anymore," he said. "They said, 'OK.' "
But on Oct. 1, Gray saw that DirecTV had withdrawn nearly $280 from his bank account. He immediately called the company to ask what was up.
"They said it was a non-return fee for my two satellite boxes," Gray recalled. "They said it wasn't negotiable."
He asked to speak with a supervisor and got the same response. In fact, Gray said, he was told that DirecTV was actually doing him a favor. He said the supervisor claimed he could have been billed as much as $400 for allowing his receivers to be roasted.
Even now, Gray is flabbergasted.
"It's not the money," he said. "This was a very stressful time, and it's very upsetting to have to deal with people who say they can't do anything to help you."
Needless to say, DirecTV makes its position known in the contracts everyone signs when they agree to service but nobody ever reads.
There it is in the equipment lease addendum: "You are responsible for the loss of or any damage to the DirecTV equipment that you have leased from DirecTV.
"You acknowledge that the DirecTV equipment belongs to DirecTV and the DirecTV equipment, including the access card inserted into each receiver, must be returned to DirecTV in good working order, normal wear and tear excepted."
If you fail to do so, the contract says, you'll be charged $55 for each standard receiver, $200 for each receiver with digital video recording capability, $240 for each high-definition receiver or $470 for each high-def receiver with recording capability.
Fair enough. But isn't there any wiggle room for people who just lost everything in a fire?
Robert Mercer, a DirecTV spokesman, said yes. At least that's the way it's supposed to work in the event of a natural disaster.
"Mr. Gray was not flagged for special handling in our system, as he should have been," Mercer said. "This was a regrettable mistake on our part."
And apparently Gray wasn't alone in being wrongly charged for charbroiled DirecTV receivers.
Mercer said a company investigation, launched after I started poking my nose into the matter, turned up at least a handful of other SoCal fire victims who also may have been billed for burned boxes.
He said DirecTV was working to remedy each of those cases. Mercer also said it was unclear why a supervisor told Gray that he could have been charged as much as $400 for his boxes. "We don't have any fee like that," Mercer said.
For its part, Time Warner Cable also says its policy is not to complicate things for victims of major fires.
"For a regular house fire, we'll try to work with the customer or his insurance company," said Patricia Fregoso-Cox, a company spokeswoman. "But for a big fire, like a wildfire, we'll be very proactive. We'll immediately stop billing and write off any damaged equipment. We'll take the hit, not the customer."
During a disaster, Fregoso-Cox added, "the last thing that customers need to worry about is their Time Warner Cable equipment."
DirecTV's Mercer said the company knew it screwed up in Gray's case.
"A little more compassion and common sense would have gone a long way toward resolving the problem," he said.
The company is refunding the $279.87 in fees and taxes deducted from Gray's bank account.
That's a start. A little remedial education for the customer service department probably wouldn't be a bad idea as well.
David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.