Maryland Electric Company Sends You Unsolicited Light Bulbs, Charges $12

An electric company in Maryland, Allegheny Power, sent its customers some CFL light bulbs as part of a consumer education program. Sounds nice until you find out that they customers were charged $0.96 a month (about $12 a year) for the two light bulbs.

From the Cumberland Times-News:

In May 2005, Susan put her family on an Allegheny Power payment plan that automatically deducts the total amount due on her monthly electric bill from her checking account. In her own words, she has “never, ever, ever, ever been late.” Not once.

So when Munck called Allegheny Power’s toll-free customer service number Wednesday morning to let the company know she had no intention of paying the 96-cent surcharge for the next 12 months for receiving two compact fluorescent, energy-efficient light bulbs, she was understandably taken aback by the company’s response.

“They threatened to turn off my power if I didn’t pay this 96 cents,” said Munck, one of 220,000 Allegheny Power residents to which bulbs were sent.

When Munck told the customer service representative she didn’t need the bulbs – her home already is “full of those bulbs” – she was told she could give them to a neighbor but, regardless, she’d be charged for them.

“That was really underhanded what they did,” Munck said. “It’s unconscionable.”

Some consumers are questioning whether or not it’s legal for a company to randomly mail you things, then charge you for them.

The Times-News heard from a number of upset power company customers in the past two days. Cumberland residents Howard Losiewicz, Jeff Hedrick and Richard Kirchner all questioned whether it was legal to send an unsolicited item through the U.S. Postal Service and charge for it.

“If they mail it to you, it’s yours,” Hedrick said.

Hedrick, an at-home pastry aficionado, said he bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie and plans on sending a tin full of them to Allegheny Power every 30 days – with an invoice equal to his monthly electric bill.

A U.S. Postal Service spokesman said mail customers have the option of refusing an unsolicited item and requesting a refund as long as the package has not been opened.

Turns out, it doesn’t even matter. The power company is charging its customers for the bulbs even if they were returned unopened or if the customer claims they never got them. No exceptions.


Faithful Allegheny Power customer considers mailing ‘underhanded’
[Cumberland News-Times]
(Photo:Paul Keller)

Comments

Edit Your Comment

  1. Wow should I return this telephone I’m renting from AT&T too?

  2. snazz says:

    a good example of how auto payment plans and whatnot can lead to you not noticing unexected charges. its VERY nice to not have to worry about a bill getting paid, but you should always look at the bill every month and make sure things like this dont happen. (it seems that this woman does look at her bill and noticed the first month of the charges. but how many other customers of this company auto pay and never look at the bill?)

  3. MercuryPDX says:

    “If they mail it to you, it’s yours,” Hedrick said.

    QFT!

  4. gorckat says:

    [www.opc.state.md.us] (People’s Council)
    [www.psc.state.md.us] (Public Service Commission)

    File complaints. I just happen to have these bookmarked :P

    Hedrick, an at-home pastry aficionado, said he bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie and plans on sending a tin full of them to Allegheny Power every 30 days – with an invoice equal to his monthly electric bill.

    Hmm…I make some mean brownies…

  5. @mercurypdx: @gorckat: You two are amazing… with the speed at which you posted those references.

  6. sonichghog says:

    So, if they decide to mail everyone 100 paperclips and charge $100, they HAVE to pay. WTF..

    This really sounds like Mail fraud.

  7. Jaysyn was banned for: http://consumerist.com/5032912/the-subprime-meltdown-will-be-nothing-compared-to-the-prime-meltdown#c7042646 says:

    I can answer the above question – It’s not legal.

    If a company sends you something in the mail that you didn’t order, feel free to keep it as a gift.

    [abcnews.go.com]

  8. LikeYourFace says:

    @AngrySicilian: Oh, did you get one of them spiffy Princess phones?

    Seriously though, this has to be mail fraud. (Or at the least, highly unethical.) How is this different from the guy who found himself involuntarily signed up for the Joke of the Day?

  9. LikeYourFace says:

    @Jaysyn: Yeah, but what recourse do you have when they tell you “pay or we’ll CUT OFF YOUR POWER.”

  10. Anonymous says:

    This is another example of a corporation forcing some minor charge on you in hopes that you will think “96 cents a month is not worth the headache of arguing with you on the phone for hours on end”.

    I support executions of corporate execs at companies like these.

    Some things, China just does right.

  11. econobiker says:

    The real issue is that that company is seeing its profits drain away as people install more efficient bulbs or the company is trying to be “eco friendly” yet covering its profits at the same time. Surely the company purchased the bulbs at huge volume discount…

  12. Buran says:

    @sonichghog: It is. I’d file mail fraud charges, and if they threaten to cut off your power, consider a lawsuit in court for fraud or whatever actually applies if it isn’t fraud.

    • Difdi says:

      @Buran: Agreed. If they charge you for something you didn’t order, or agree to pay for, and cut off your service after you pay for what you agreed to pay for (and used) but not what you didn’t…then by all means, sue the bejeezus out of them.

  13. MercuryPDX says:

    @AngrySicilian: Slow news…errr work day. :)

  14. Buran says:

    @LikeYourFace: Court. It’s illegal to do that and a judge can order that all charges be waived.

  15. gorckat says:

    @LikeYourFace: Yeah, but what recourse do you have when they tell you “pay or we’ll CUT OFF YOUR POWER.”

    iirc, the past due msut be $100+ in MD for them to be able to disconnect the service, and in the winter months an affidavit has to filed with the PSC before they cut service.

    That’s 100+ months of free light bulbs.

  16. DavidS722 says:

    $12 a year! Surprised no one has mentioned that those bulbs go for about $2.50 each at Home Depot

  17. NoWin says:

    @econobiker: or the “promotion” has state or federal grant money involved, too.

  18. Jaysyn was banned for: http://consumerist.com/5032912/the-subprime-meltdown-will-be-nothing-compared-to-the-prime-meltdown#c7042646 says:

    @LikeYourFace:

    Personally, I have a gas generator & a cell phone to call a lawyer.

  19. pegr says:

    @Buran: Nope, you’re right… It’s fraud.

  20. ncboxer says:

    Can he send me a tin of those cookies? I’m hungry at the moment….

  21. caederus says:

    The key item which makes it legal is that the fee was approved as an additional fee from the Public service commision. So basically they got a rate increase pushed through by saying we will be sending a couple of CFs to our customers.

    So while it’s legal, it’s just a scummy thing to do.

  22. RottNDude says:

    There are boxes upon boxes of these at Fry’s Electronics, each with a sticker on them that says they’re discounted courtesy of San Diego Gas & Electric. I’ve seen them as low as 96 cents each. Home Depot had a 4-pack for 2.99 right around Christmas.

  23. Zagroseckt says:

    Some one is bound to do this.

    1. Report them. to every possible interpretation you can come up with from mail to credit froad

    2. send payment /Sans/ 96c

    3. when power is cut swich to genorator. (costly but keep every recept and meter the genorator for KWH (not it’s rated KWH but what you use).

    4. sue for froad refusel of service of a basic utility and the cost of fuel and maintenince of the genorator over that wich you would of spent if you had ben connected to the grid. including time spent maintaining equipment.

    5. proffet?

  24. bentcorner says:

    I’m one of the customers that was sent these bulbs. I just assumed they were free. I once got a trial package of fabric softener sheets in the mail and those were free. In this case, the power company got special permission from something called the Maryland Public Service Commission to send these out to us for a fee. I’d never heard of them before this.

    We switched over to these type of Al Gore approved bulbs a long time ago, so I just placed my non-free bulbs on the self next to the box of fluorescent light bulbs we already had. It may be quite a while till I get around to using them. One of the many advantages to these type of bulbs is they last almost forever.

    I wrote about it on my blog.

    [www.bentcorner.com]

  25. SacraBos says:

    da dum… da dum… da dum da dum da dum DA DUM! Yes, some land shark is smelling the scent of Class Action in the water.

    Certainly, as a utility, you can complain to the Public Utilities Commission (or whatever they may call it there).

  26. Zagroseckt says:

    PS.
    I personly spent a year on 4 small soler panels 4 large batteries and a 10,000 KWH genorator.
    do to a room mate not paying a bill…. that ran well over 3k.

    took me that long to get back on the grid …

    ODLY AT the time. i was paying less for my daly power consumption than when i swiched back to the grid… alternitvly i didnt have to stock pile gas :p
    oil. and alike

    pps
    ever carry 3 6gallon gas cans on a bicycle :)
    you can realy coast a long ways with that much waight on it.. just dont try to turn to quick :p

  27. DrGirlfriend says:

    What about calling the local news? I would imagine they’d be able to wrangle up a few disgruntled customers.

    Also, I am sure that my chocolate chips cookies are meaner.

  28. LikeYourFace says:

    @gorckat: You’re so right. They won’t cut off your power when you don’t pay for their unwanted bulb, even when they threaten to. That’d be, like, wrong or something.

    /sarcasm.

  29. hn333 says:

    LAWSUIT

  30. Dibbler says:

    @Zagroseckt: I’m not complaining or anything but did you spell all those word wrong “on purpose” or what?

  31. Tracy Ham and Eggs says:

    @Zagroseckt: Please learn to spell. Your post are painful to read.

    @DrGirlfriend: The paper is the local news, Cumberland doesnt have local TV stations.

    @Jaysyn: No always. If you get something sent you should make a good faith effort to contact the sender before keeping it. If, for example, someone orders an item and it is delivered to you by mistake (say, a numbers transposition or identity theft attempt) you would be liable if you dont contact the company that mailed it out.

    This is bad business, and needs to be refunded to all their customers plus interest, but dont jump to filing criminal complaints. Buran, I know you love to claim everything is illegal, but calm the heck down.

  32. theirishscion says:

    @Zagroseckt: Ok, I want to hear the rest of that story….

  33. iMike says:

    Doesn’t work that way. Unordered merchandise is a free gift; FTC will stomp on a company that sends unordered merchandise then demands payment. No idea whether there’s a preemption or exemption vis-a-vis utilities.

    Something tells me we don’t have all the facts.

  34. bentcorner says:

    @Tracy: Cumberland doesn’t have local news? What about NBC25?

  35. bentcorner says:

    What I still don’t understand is how a state agency (Maryland Public Service Commission)can override federal postal laws. I don’t think that is the way it works.

  36. yagisencho says:

    I love the smell of a lawsuit in the morning.

    Alright, so it’s the afternoon.

    Nevertheless, I’d like to read the fine print where the company claims the right to send unsolicited products and charge you for them.

  37. backbroken says:

    Why do I have a feeling that the following announcement will be coming from Allegheny Power:

    “Allegheny Power is glad to provide these bulbs free of charge to all of its customers. We will be cancelling the $.96 charge immediately and refunding all customer who have paid it.

    In unrelated news, Allegheny Power is announcing a new $1 service delivery fee to be applied to all accounts effective immediately. If you don’t like it, go suck on your new bulb.”

  38. Quellman says:

    I thought there was a $20 minimum claim if you file in court. No matter. I want to know what they do if your bulb was broken in transit, or burns out. Do you get to stop payment since you don’t use it anymore? Doubtful looking at the comments.

  39. IrisMR says:

    this can’t be legal. To the very least it’s crooked.

  40. trujunglist says:

    @RottenDude

    Thanks for the tip, I’ll have to stick it to SDG&E by buying some of their discounted high efficiency light bulbs from the Fry’s Electronics on Aero Drive. What a bunch of maroons!

  41. gorckat says:

    A tad more digging:

    [webapp.psc.state.md.us]

    On pdf page 13:

    To further encourage participation and overcome the additional cost barriers, Allegheny
    is considering a $1.50 rebate for each CFL purchased by the customer from a third-party
    vendor.

    Wonder what happened to that…

    I couldn’t get to the order actually approving it (ran out of time at work), but in an early meeting, it looks like the PSC was approving the surcharge as “cost recovery”, whcih they’ve clearly exceeded.

  42. Mollyg says:

    I disagree with the company’s interpretation of the Public Service Commission’s approval. The Commission did not approve any plan to send customers bulbs and then charge them even if they returned them. The Commission approved one plan to have the company install better thermostats in homes, and another to provide incentives for customers to reduce energy use during peak times. Both plans require the customer to enroll willingly in the program.
    I believe that the company is illegally scamming the consumer.

  43. jeff303 says:

    @Tracy Ham and Eggs: “Your post are painful to read.” … “but dont jump”

    Let he who is without sin, etc.

  44. EricaKane says:

    The state action presents an interesting question here. The only way I could see this conceivably work is if the 96 cents would be considered just an actual increase in your bill and the light bulbs are just a gift or something.

    Something is missing from this article, I know for a fact that if a private company sends you something in the mail, you can keep it and not have to pay for it.

  45. smoothtom says:

    It sounds to me as though Allegheny Power is not charging for the light bulbs but has implemented a surcharge to cover the costs of a consumer-education initiative touting the advantages of CFL bulbs. That initiative, funded by the surcharge, provides a “free” lightbulb kit mailed to every customer. Kinda shady, but not illegal, I wouldn’t imagine.

  46. theblackdog says:

    @DrGirlfriend: I think it’s time for a bake-off between consumerist readers on who makes the meanest Chocolate Chip Cookies.

    I volunteer to be a judge of said contest.

  47. Tracy Ham and Eggs says:

    @EricaKane: Again, not true in every case. Best to be careful and attempt to return the item.

  48. dcartist says:

    It can’t be legal to charge a customer for an unsolicited item. There is no contract established. The receiver should have the right to consider it a GIFT.

    How the hell can he be charged for it???

    It’s a damn GIFT. PERIOD. No contract. No price. Those bulbs don’t cost $6 anyway. I’m sure that in BULK (orders over 10,000), the electric company only paid $1 apiece for them, the scumbag liars.

    If they could really get away with this, the best way to jumpstart any new product business, would be to send out your actual PRODUCT, and an INVOICE. You’d no longer get SPAM mail. Hormel would actually send you SPAM.

  49. realwx says:

    As a former Allegheny Power customer in Carroll County (now w/ BGE), I say they should fix their own problems first, and not focus on selling customers lightbulbs.

  50. Darren W. says:

    I own two properties in Frederick, MD, and just sent this article to the local paper and a local area blog. Thank you again, Consumerist!

  51. esthermofet says:

    It’s a gift. Keep it: [www.usps.com]

  52. t-r0y says:

    No doubt, this is illegal. From the USPS website …

    “If you open the package and like what you find, you may keep it for free. In this instance, “finders-keepers” applies unconditionally”

    “Furthermore, it is illegal for a company that sends you unordered merchandise to follow the mailing with a bill or dunning communication.”

    See: [www.usps.com]

  53. comedian says:

    Go back to basics: If they really approved a tariff like htis, the PSUC likely overstepped its enabling legislation.

  54. CyGuy says:

    I confused by:

    “A U.S. Postal Service spokesman said mail customers have the option of refusing an unsolicited item and requesting a refund as long as the package has not been opened.”

    which contradicts the ABCNews link and the USPS links provided in other comments. Maybe the spokesman meant in cases where the recipient has already made a payment? but that if you haven’t paid it’s free? The reporter for the original story seems not to have adequately done their homework.

    I would suggest that Alleghany customers look at switching electric companies, but the only company I would recomend, MXenergy.com doesn’t serve that area. Maybe one of the Green alternative energy companies serves them?

  55. kc2idf says:

    Not only is this underhanded (and probably illegal), but the price is also too high. Two CFLs can be had for $6 or less. The best price I have seen on them has been $1.67, in the form of a 6-pack for $10.

  56. 1964F100 says:

    A supermarket in my area recently had two-packs of dimmable CFLs on sale for $2.00, sale price subsidized by the electric utility. Considering that dimmer-compatible CFLs are hard to find, this kind of offer makes the Allegheny Power CFL shenanigans all the more suspect.

    And I wouldn’t be surprised if the CFLs Allegheny sent were the standard non-dimmable variety.

  57. Buran says:

    @Carbon-Arcs: Where can you get the dimmable ones? My bf needs a few.

  58. zephyr_words says:

    I was charged for this I guess. My bill is so small every month that I glanced at it and didn’t notice a 1 dollar increase. I just got bulbs in the mail and said, cool.

    I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s one dollar. If you can’t afford that go to a parking lot and pickup change.

    On the other hand I think if the customer wanted to send them back they should be able to.

  59. zephyr_words says:

    @zephyr_words: ahh read again more closely and saw it was 12$ That sort of sucks. Sorry it’s late.

  60. FLConsumer says:

    @Buran: Try the on-line merchants. [www.1000bulbs.com] has quite a few, [www.lightbulbemporium.com] also has a decent selection. Not sure if anyone plays with the PAR bulbs, but 1000bulbs has great prices on PAR36’s! 75% less than what the local places want for them.

  61. cerbie says:

    @sonichghog: that’s what I was thinking, when I read it. Not even a, “you charged me too much on my cell phone bill, and the USPS holds some weight” kind of mail fraud, but straight up, “I’m trying to extort you by sending you an unsolicited product and charging you for it,” mail fraud. Not as simple as a CoD scam, but a similar premise.

    @LikeYourFace: “I just want to make sure I’m close enough to see the look on the judge’s face when he hears that you cut my power off for my not paying a fraudulent charge.”

    A rate increase of $10 or so a year seems fine. Charging for a product that was not asked for does not. They could do this by mailing you a notice that your rates will increase, then separately send you a CFL as free gift and educational tool (there are still way too many people that think CFLs are as bad as they were 10 years ago). Then, ta-da: no fraud, all profit.

  62. aka Cat says:

    @Buran: my local Target carries them. They aren’t that great though, they dim to about %70 of the full output and they won’t turn on unless the dimmer is set to max.

    I’d be interested to know if any of the other dimmable CFLs are any better.

  63. Buran says:

    @zephyr_words: And that’s why they do it. Because people won’t care.

  64. magus_melchior says:

    @Dibbler: He could be posting from a mobile device. Or IE.

  65. 1964F100 says:

    @Buran: The ones I got were from a Ralphs in a San Diego, CA suburb. San Diego Gas and Electric subsidized the low price.

    While not known for its low electric rates, at least SDG&E has offered attractive subsidies for CFLs over the years.

  66. MoCo says:

    Rather presumtuous of the power company to even assume that people have lamps that can use these bulbs. Some customers may be using only the long tube florescents throughout their homes, or bulbs that have mini-bases. Or candles, for that matter.