A cable bill showing cable TV fees.

Among all the sneaky, add-on fees that plague American consumers these days, none are more common than those lurking in their cable bills.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans who have used telecom services in the past two years say they have experienced unexpected fees, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey of 2,057 U.S. adults.

“With the proliferation of add-on fees, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to find out the full cost of a cable package before they get locked into a contract—and cable companies count on this,” says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports. “These confusing, often misleadingly named charges continue to drive up consumer bills, even if you lock in a promotional rate."

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When we asked about unexpected fees, hundreds of Consumer Reports members told us about cable TV charges that drove their monthly charges higher than what they thought they'd been promised. Consumer Reports received the largest number of complaints about Comcast’s Xfinity service, but members cited a number of companies.

And those fees can be extra frustrating in part because it’s difficult—though not impossible—to do anything about them.

The fix: With cable, the best way to avoid fees is to cut the cord entirely and use streaming services or an antenna instead. To stream, you’ll still need internet service, but that typically comes with few fees other than $5 to $10 per month to rent a modem or router. And you can avoid that by buying your own equipment.

For cell-phone fees, one option is to switch to a carrier, such as T-Mobile, that folds fees into its base rate. And carriers will sometimes waive the $30 or so charged when you change plans or buy a new phone, because it's in the company’s interest to have you upgrade.

Another step is to join CR’s effort to insist on honest pricing from telecom providers, including the full cost of the service and no hidden fees in small print. 

When you’re complaining, it helps to understand what’s on your bill. Here are common fees you may see and, when possible, how to get out of paying them.

Broadcast TV fee: Cable com­panies say this defrays costs they pay to local networks, such as ABC and CBS. Prices range from about $4 to $11 a month.

Regional sports surcharge fee: This compensates cable companies for what they pay regional sports networks—though those networks are sometimes owned by the cable companies themselves. The cost: $7 to $12 a month—even if you don’t watch sports.

Set-top box or receiver fees: Most cable companies charge $7 to $13 a month to rent the boxes needed to receive signals. Some providers, such as Optimum and Comcast, offer an app that lets you get content directly on a smart TV or streaming device without the box. Or you can avoid boxes with a device such as TiVo.

DVR service: The ability to record shows can cost $10 to $25 a month and is often one of the bigger fees in a cable bill. But because many channels now offer on-demand replays of popular shows, you may find that you can live without a DVR.

Administrative, regulatory, and gross surcharge fees: Charged by cell-phone carriers, these typically come to $1 or $2 per account or phone line. Companies say the charge offsets their expenses, like taxes and regulatory and legal costs. In other words, the cost of doing business.

Federal universal service charges: These can be up to 20 percent of your total cell-phone bill, but they're for a good cause. They offset the cost of providing telecom services to people with low incomes or who live in rural communities, as well as to schools, libraries, and rural healthcare facilities.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the August 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.