When Zombie Utility Bills Attack! 4 Years Later, You Owe $696.51

Here’s one for all the Florida lawyers out there who read this blog. (We know you exist!) When reader Matt moved 4 years ago, he transferred the utilities at his college apartment to one of his roommates. Now, 4 years later, the utility company says that the account was never transferred and that Matt owes $696.51 because his deadbeat roommates never paid the bill after he left.

Reader Matt writes:

I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now, and I had hoped that I’d never have to write in for advice…but I think that day has come.

I attended college at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, FL. During my last semester there, I rented a house with three roommates. The utilities were in my name, and when I moved out in January of 2003, I went to the Tallahassee Utilities main branch with a roommate and transferred the utilities into his name, along with paying my final bill at that time.

Fast forward now to January 2008. I receive a collections letter stating that I owe Tallahassee Utilities $696.51! First, I call the collections agency and get the run-around; they have no idea what the charges are for, or from when, and tell me that the ONLY way I can wipe this off my credit report is to pay the full amount. They also discourage me from even calling Tallahassee Utilities, because (and I quote) “They don’t take phone calls from deadbeats whose bills get sent to collection agencies.” Needless to say, I called them as soon as I hung up with the collection agency.

Surprisingly enough, Angela the CSR I spoke with was sympathetic, and was able to provide me with ALL the information I wanted. She informed me that the amount was for a delinquent bill from August 2007, a whole four and a half years after I had moved and taken the utilities out of my name. Of course, their system still showed me as the primary account holder. They never made the name change on the account, and no tenant after me had EVER changed the utilities out of my name. That’s college kids for you.

After explaining the situation, and pointing out that I had documentation of leases and employment records to show I hadn’t lived in Tallahassee for five years, she offered to put the case to her supervisor (Mike), who could make the decision to, in effect, cancel my responsibility to pay the bill. I thank her, take the supervisor’s name and number, and she puts me through to his voicemail (since he is, of course, out of the office).

I let two days go by, and contact the supervisor again. One more voicemail, and I wait one more day for a call back. Finally, I get a voicemail from my initial CSR (Angela, not the supervisor) saying that although they believed me and understood that a mistake had been made, they could do nothing unless I produced a copy of the form I filled out five years ago requesting a transfer on the utilities. Of course, I call back immediately only to get her voicemail, and Mike’s as well. Getting frustrated, I navigate back through their system to another CSR, who I relay my entire story to. She then wants to send me to her supervisor, who I speak to. I then relay the entire story to her, and she says that there is nothing they can do without a copy of that form. Now, I don’t know about any of you, but I don’t keep a utilities transfer form that’s five years old. After offering up infinite amounts of hard copy data that proves I had moved from the residence, the only thing the supervisor tells me is that I have no recourse, other than having my old landlord possibly call them and tell them I moved out five years ago. She even says that it’s a long shot, but possible. I take her contact information, and leave it at that.

So here I am, two days later. I’ve exhausted my search for my old landlord. I looked through all my old files, called my old roommates, etc. He didn’t even live in Tallahassee, he was up in South Bend, IN, and I am unable to find him. It’s possible he may no longer own the house, in which case I have no leg to stand on with a new landlord. I’m stuck with a collection for $696.51 on my credit report, on a bill that was fraudulently run up in my name. Any advice on what to do would be appreciated. Thanks Consumerist!

Matt

We’re going to toss this one out to the comments because, sadly, our experience with Florida public utilities companies is pretty limited. However, we think you should formally dispute the debt with the collection agency. Then you might want to contact the Florida Public Service Commission to see if they can be of any assistance.

(Photo:johpan)

Comments

Edit Your Comment

  1. friendlynerd says:

    Something similar happened to me…I moved from my apartment to my house and the gas company never took the apartment out of my name. I was unknowingly (I know, read the bill closer!) paying 2 gas bills for a couple months.

    Once I uncovered the error I called the gas company and they gave me the runaround saying I never told them to shut it off. I said “Look, I know you record phone calls. Dig out the tape. I’ll wait.) After 1/2 hour on the phone they came back and were full of shit-eating apologies.

  2. Kenneth says:

    @friendlynerd: oooh good one, I’ve used the “don’t you record this” on many of my issues and it works. I find that they either check the tape, or just give up. I don’t think this provides a solution to Matt’s problem (sorry Matt).

  3. brianala says:

    I had a similar experience with Tallahassee utilities after my divorce. I moved out of the house and the utilities were in my name. While my ex assured me that he paid all the bills (I gave him funds to cover my portion), apparently the final bill was overlooked.

    Meanwhile, I had opened a new account at my new residence with the same utility company. I’d even sent change of address forms with the post office so that any bills in my name would reach me at the new address.

    Several years later I received a call from MAC collections about the unpaid bill. I’d never received a single notice from City of Tallahassee that the bill was unpaid, even though they had all of my current information.

    I paid the final bill directly with City of Tallahassee, but the collection agency refused to show the debt as paid. It took me another year or so of fighting with them to get them to update the account status. They were incredibly rude, called me at work several times a day even when I told them not to, cursed at me, and accused me of being stupid and irresponsible, telling me I should just “pay them the damned money” if I wanted them to stop calling.

  4. jamesdenver says:

    Sorry off-topic but I’d be so honored if you’d replace that stock picture of Florida with mine – taken in Ocala.

    [www.futuregringo.com]

  5. Buran says:

    Why the hell did it take them so long to start screaming? If they really refuse to fix it after your furnishing lots of proof, maybe small claims court, where a judge can order them to wipe your record and admit you aren’t responsible? Also if it’s six years old it will fall off your report in just another year.

  6. Buran says:

    @jamesdenver: I’d be so honored if they’d replace it with some random arbitrary pic I took too, but if you really want them to use your shots it’s not like the instructions aren’t posted once a week.

  7. BlyGilmore says:

    Your best bet is to contact the state’s Department of Public Utilities (or whatever the state’s regulating body for utilities is called). They will no doubt have a consumer division that can help you work this out.

  8. JGB says:

    That “guilty till proven innocent” tactic assumes you are scared shitless of the threat to your credit score. Tell them you have researched the matter and found in your favor. Oh, and that there is “nothing more you can do for them”.

  9. Kenneth says:

    @Buran: doesn’t that 6 years begin when the debt is reported??

  10. selectman says:

    Sadly, this is why you should just cancel utilities rather than try to transfer them, even if it would add a service fee to the new occupants.

    My dad moved into my old place recently, so I made an exception and transferred stuff to him…I still get emails from DirecTV telling me I owe $0.00, despite a three way call transferring the account with a rep, myself and my dad, and many attempts afterward.

  11. coan_net says:

    I’m not sure why this is a Consumerist issue. I mean the utility is doing what it has to do to collect the bill. I mean what would stop everyone from signing up for service, running up a big bill, and they saying “oh, I moved – those charges are not mine”. The business would be out a lot of money.

    Now I do believe this person did not make the charges, and I believe that they tried to change the service out of their name – but things get lost.

    4 years after does seem like a long time. It would be interesting to see if the bill was in this persons name for the 3 years in between – and if they were being paid…. and if being paid, then by who? (That is was it paid for by check – does the utility keep a copy of the check for their records?

  12. Brine says:

    When I moved out of my apartment, I called the utility company to transfer my service to my new address. Two months later I came to find out that unless I specifically told them to cancel the service, they don’t (I guess transferring something isn’t explicit enough). I was stuck with a two month bill.

  13. DMDDallas says:

    @coan_net: He moved out and has documentation of moving. Why isn’t that sufficent to demonstrate that he isn’t trying to scam them?

  14. EricaKane says:

    LESSON: Never transfer utilities. ALWAYS cancel your service and get your roommates to get new service. Its not that much disruption, if any.

  15. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    I’m not sure why this is a Consumerist issue.

    *resists urge to flag comment*

    @coan_net: How is this not a consumer issue?

  16. noquarter says:

    @coan_net: I’m not sure why this is a Consumerist issue

    This is a corporation screwing up and telling a human that he, the human, must pay whatever they, the corporation, claim in order to appease them. This is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the balance of person/corporation power in this country, and it is the epitome of a consumerist issue.

    It’s sickening to me that you think the corporation’s desire to make money nullifies their responsibility to bill the proper person.

  17. wickedpixel says:

    The statute of limitations in Florida for collections on a written contract is 5 years, oral contract is 4 years. The clock starts running from the date the account was reported as delinquent (which should show up on your credit report). This may not get the debt removed from your credit report, but at least it’ll absolve you from having to pay it.

  18. coan_net says:

    The point is what would stop me & you from putting our bills in the other persons name. They at some point, moving most of our bills except for one – showing the we “moved” from the house. Then letting the last bill just increase and then say “Oh, we didn’t leave there during that time so the bill is not ours”.

    Yea, we can show “proof” that we moved – but if we can not show proof that we changed that bill out of our name, then what would stop us from scamming this business out of a lot of money.

    Again, I believe this person – but believing him and him having the neccessary paperwork to back up his claim that he tried to change the bill out of his name are 2 different things.

    Again, like I said – 4 years is a long time – I would be interested to see in those 3 years after he moved out if a bill was still “in his name” being sent to this address – if it was being payed, and how it was being paid. Was it paid with a check? Does this utility keep photocopies of the checks – does these checks have someone’s name on it.

  19. Blind But Now I See says:

    To find your old landlord just go to the appraisal district website for the county that you lived in and type in your address and it should tell you the name and address of the current owner of the property. Even if he’s not the current owner you should be able to look up the info for several years back and get his info so you can contact him.

    Hope that helps a little!

  20. noquarter says:

    @coan_net: …then what would stop us from scamming this business out of a lot of money

    It is neither my nor the OP’s responsibility to ensure that this business makes money.

    If they can prove that he’s scamming them, then they should. Otherwise, keeping them profitable despite their apparently horrible record-keeping is not his problem.

  21. ooby says:

    @noquarter: It’s fair, “Not for the payor, but for the payee. And you better pay up, or else…”

  22. DMDDallas says:

    @coan_net: Except, as I said, he has irrefutable documentation that he wasn’t legally attached to the lease during the time in dispute. What kind of ‘scam’ is it to move out of a house and not tell the utility company?

    I have little sympathy for the utility here because they waited to long to attempt collection, and obviously let the bill run up that high. A simple call to the phone number on file could have made this much less of a problem.

    They need to find out who lived in the house, and I’m sure our victim here is more than happy to tell them, and sic their collectors on THEM.

  23. MidSouthGeek says:

    I’m not sure how successful you might be, but the Florida Public Service Commission has an online complaint filing process. [www.psc.state.fl.us]
    They do regulate Tallahassee Utilities. Since the Talgov.com website has no process in place for filing a complaint, this might be a worthwhile choice if you want to contest it.

  24. deadlizard says:

    Something similar to this happened to me to an utility that sent me
    a $400 bill 9 months after I moved. I was asked to prove I closed my
    account, which was impossible to do because I did it over the phone and
    never got a written confirmation. I was lucky I dodged the bullet
    because I found a discrepancy on the bill (they were billing me for the
    wrong address). I wonder why utilities don’t cut off the service of
    delinquent accounts like they used to. Now they let bills pile up until
    kingdom come.

  25. 3drage says:

    Statute of limitations?

  26. junglee069 says:

    I had a similar situation in Texas – with TXU. I had moved out of an apartment in 1998, and transferred electricity to another location. Everything was fine, was still a TXU customer.

    In 2004, 6 years later, in a brand new apartment, about 2-3 weeks of having been there, I find my electricity disconnected. Odd, as I had not gotten an electricity bill – I called to report an outage only to learn that I had a past due amount – FROM SIX YEARS AGO!

    I argued, fought, was outraged – and there was no way about it. Thought I’d be smart and call a competiting electricity provider – I discover that they checked with my current provider and learned I had an outstanding balance – and were requiring a deposit that was even more than the balance I owed TXU!!

    Not having electricity, even for a few hours, is humbling. I gave in and paid them. Wish I had know about this website then!!

  27. failurate says:

    When I left my college apt. and roomates I was kind of leary of something like this happening, so I had the electricity turned off completely.
    Yeah, the roommies were ticked, but it forced the change over.
    @deadlizard: Because with the modern credit scoring/black mailing system it is easier to keep track of people and force them to pay absurdly high bills.
    Plus, they hide behind welfare policies of never letting poor folk or elderly folk get cold or hot.

  28. JustAGuy2 says:

    @Buran:

    I think they debt is actually recent, from August of 07 – it’s hitting him because (years later), the account is STILL in his name.

  29. GearheadGeek says:

    @coan_net: That’s the point of the scam you would devise, but the reason this is a reasonable posting on Consumerist is as a warning to people against doing something similar. The best advice has been posted above already… Do an official disconnect when you move out. If people you know are moving in/staying there, coordinate with them so they set up their service before the date of the disconnect, everyone’s covered.

  30. GearheadGeek says:

    @junglee069: TXU, Prince of Darkness, Panderer to Regulators, Champion of Deregulation.

  31. deadlizard says:

    @failurate: Somehow they’re pretty lousy
    tracking you down until they pass it to collections. I didn’t know I
    had a zombie account because once I moved I never got a single bill.

  32. Buran says:

    @junglee069: Aren’t they supposed to send you a disconnect notice!!?

  33. MYarms says:

    How is it that the house still had their utilities on if they weren’t paying the bills??? That part doesn’t make any sense to me. In Orlando you get about a month of non-payment before they cut it off (trust me I know first hand). Though I think you’re pretty much screwed unless you can find that transfer form. It seems to me that it should have been a slightly more important idea to keep track of where you put it.

  34. stre says:

    @MYarms: i think even if i was uber-super-ultra anal retentive i wouldn’t have kept that form for 4 years. i mean come on, you have to assume after a period of time (certainly less than four years) that, since no one is coming after you for money, the account was switched over. asking someone to come up with that sheet of paper is like asking you to regurgitate the dinner you had 6 months ago. you can’t, it’s gone.

  35. deadlizard says:

    @GearheadGeek: also, get a written confirmation the service was disconnected and save a scan of tha document on Picasa or something.

  36. Sidecutter says:

    @ooby: “…Pizza is gonna send out for YOU!”

  37. Buran says:

    @Sidecutter: … in Soviet Russia …

  38. bpierce says:

    Dispute the collection with the credit agency, then file a FORMAL complaint with the PSC. Tallahassee Utilities is trying to get you to do its collection work. Call Tallahassee Utilities and ask for the bills they sent to you to collect. Let them prove they billed you!

    I have a landlord agreement in another state with the local utility. The deal is the power stays on, but I agree to pay the bill when the tenants move. Unfortunately, the utility tries to auto bill me when the tenant stops paying. I say I have a valid lease and the PSC would agree when I file a copy with my formal complaint. The charges usually get waived.

    Don’t assume that the utilities attempt to collect the bad debt are legal. They want the money, not the responsible party.

    Not sure what recourse you have in small claims court…

  39. Smashville says:

    @MYarms: Isn’t the transfer form something he would have sent to the company? Why would he still have it?

  40. FLConsumer says:

    Too all those who are suggesting calling the Florida Public Service Commission — don’t bother. The Florida PSC is a 100% puppet for the utilities. They’ve never seen a price hike they didn’t like or a utility-proposed plan they couldn’t agree with. Even when it was totally uncalled for.

  41. Hambriq says:

    Ugh.

    Speaking of zombie debts, just a few weeks ago, we got a letter from a debt collector about a debt of my finacee’s that was 6 years and 10 months old.

    I suppose they figure they may as well do one last-ditch effort to get some money out of ‘ya.

  42. P41 says:

    Small claims court would be tricky but could be a powerful counterattack.

    The toughest part would be establishing jurisdiction. You’d need to convince your local judge that they’re doing business in your state and not just Florida because you settled your account with them years ago, you have proof you haven’t lived there in years, and since they’re trying to get you to pay something from where you live now, they’re choosing to do business with you in your state.

    If you can get that far, you present your evidence and ask for declaratory judgment absolving you of the bill. If you get it, then you have something to send to the bill collectors and to the credit report agencies.

    If you don’t get it, you’re screwed. You’d have to sue in Florida or stumble through doing your own case in federal court. Or you convince them to track down who’s been paying the bill all these years. Or you dispute it with the credit agencies and be prepared to send a five year whack-a-mole of do-not-contact letters by certified mail. If they sue, send the court a letter contesting jurisdiction anywhere but federal court. None of it’s pretty, so definately don’t skip the PUC complaints and the EECB’s. Hope you’re able to fight it out and they don’t just get you to pay it.

    PS you weren’t able to track down the old landlord, but don’t let the old roommates off either. If you can find the person you transferred to and he has a good story about someone else taking over after him, play that angle. If not, at least try to stick it to the person you transferred to. After all, if the bill kept arriving in your name, he should have done something.

  43. mattfour says:

    Hey guys, this Matt, I just wanted to say thanks for all the advice. I have, as of now, disputed the debt with MAF Collections and I am starting the process with the PSC (even if it is a waste of time, I’m exploring all my avenues).

    I did want to clarify that the roommates I lived with moved out 6 months after I did, and I have no clue who lived in the house since then, or else I would be calling those punks more than the collection agency is calling me.

    I’m pretty glad we have a site like this – thanks again to everyone for your help.

  44. theblackdog says:

    I agree with other posters, just cancel the service and establish a new one. I basically did that with Pepco, so the day I moved, I had a brand new account number and everything.

    Of course, I had my own issues with them later because I disputed my outrageous final bill with them, and they transferred the amount to my new account and then tried to shut me off for non-payment of my bill, despite written notice that I was not required to pay that amount while it was under investigation.

  45. teapartys_over says:

    I got screwed by Working Assets like this. I moved out of an apartment, took all bills out of my name, and then continued to receive WA long distance bills at my new address, month after month. They literally told me it would be impossible to close the account because they couldn’t close it without the local phone company asking them to, and the local phone company would do no such thing because the account was no longer in my name. The customer service reps were infuriating, and it was even more infuriating because they are such a self-righteous company. Whenever I receive their solicitations in the mail I get mad all over again.

  46. the_mdg says:

    If he owed such a huge debt to the utility company, wouldn’t they just cancel service after so many days? Maybe I misread the story, but because his butthead roomies never paid, I assume that the account would’ve gone past due . . . 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. If no one ever paid anything, you’d think someone would’ve gone out and turned off service. And if new people moved in and went to turn on service, why didn’t they see that there was this amount owing for that address? Sounds like incompetent utility employees to me. I hope you stick it to ‘em good, Matt.

  47. CarnageSIS says:

    @coan_net: I think your missing the point of the post. He’s not being contacted 4.5 years later about his last bill. They’re going after him because 4.5 years after he moved out of the house whoever was living in the house in August of 2007 did not pay the bill.

    I agree that if it had been the Jan 2003 bill from when he moved out that there could be a scamming issue involved.

    However, they are going after him for a bill that was created 4+ years after he had moved out of the house so your arguement does not makey any sense. He did not just pick up and leave the last bill unattended. This was the company’s fault for not properly transferring the information.

    If he can prove that he was not living in the house, or even in the freaking state during August of 2007 he should not have to pay the bill and this is clearly a Consumerist issue due to the company dropping the ball.

  48. Novensu says:

    To the person who commented about the debt falling off after 7 years this unfortunately is not true in all cases. Many years ago I ruined my credit doing foolish things. I thought to myself that I made a mistake and after 7 years it would be all better, well was I in for a suprise. My deliquent accounts had been sold several times and each time it was purchased by a collection agency it was placed back on my credit report as a ‘new debt’ It took me a couple of years but I was able to restore my credit. So you may want to think again about just letting it ‘fall off’ of your report.

  49. GearheadGeek says:

    @Novensu: I believe that this was an illegal action on the part of these collection agencies in an attempt to scam you into paying an old debt they bought for pennies on the dollar. I don’t know the text of the FCRA like many on here seem to, but my understanding is that “new” debts like that can be forced off your report because they can’t actually prove it’s new, any documentation they might actually have would be from when you actually incurred the debt, and many have proven to be unable to produce even that when challenged.

  50. synergy says:

    @mattfour: As someone else suggested, you can track down the owner through the appraisal district’s records. Once you get ahold of him he might provide you with information about who lived in that house since your deadbeat roommates moved out.

    As a sidenote, considering the size of South Bend, it seems I read a lot about that place or people from it. I lived there for 6 years and am glad I don’t anymore. :-p

  51. spamtasticus says:

    I have not read all the posts above so sorry if someone already said this. Contact the credit repoting agency. Tell them you contest the charge. They will ask you for a written (if I remember notarized) letter describing why you contest it. Include coppies of all your evidence. Inform the collections agency that they are to never call you again and must communicate with you via snail mail only. Let them know you have contested the charge with the credit company and tell them of the proof you have and that you have zero intention of ever paying for something you don’t own. They are in the business of making money. If they are not total fools they will stop wasting time (money) trying to collect the debt.

  52. erinpac says:

    Things like this motivate me to start that scan every form and receipt ever and stuff it in a giant network drive plan…. but not quite enough to have gotten farther than the get a network drive and glare at dysfunctional scanner step.