What Do You Do When Your Electric Company Ignores Your Financing Agreement?

Jason was stuck with a massive electric bill due to a meter-reading snafu and worked out a payment plan with the company. Now the utility has disregarded the plan, rendering Jason’s automatic payments insufficient, and tacked on finance charges. He has no idea how to maneuver out of this debt hell and wants some advice.

Read Jason’s story and see if you can help coach him out of the jam:

I got an unusually large electricity bill a couple weeks ago. I found out it was to make up for the difference between estimated and actual usage because they were unable to access the meter over the past year. Fine. I agreed to pay it, but I refused to pay any finance charges because they never even called me to schedule a meter reading.

The CSR couldn’t do anything to waive the finance charges, so I asked to be put in the queue to have a manager call me back. 3 days later I called back only to find out that they’re unusually busy and that it might be 4-5 business days before a manager gets back to me. After a week, still no manager had called me. I called back and complained again about the finance charges and finally the CSR must’ve talked to a manager because she waived the finance charges. Throughout each of my calls, I made it clear to the CSR that I needed to adjust my automatic payments because I was worried they would withdraw the entire $350 at once. They assured me that the automatic payment would be adjusted. All I needed to do was pay an initial down payment of $75 dollars over the phone. I did that.

Today, I checked my bank account and saw that they completely ignored the agreed upon financing schedule and withdrew the entire amount of the bill, which means I paid the entire bill PLUS an extra $75. So, after spending hours on hold for multiple phone calls and settling on a financing schedule, it was all for nothing.

I can’t wait weeks for a manager to call me back. I need the money credited back to my account now.

What do I do?

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  1. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    Chargeback ONLY to resolve your immediate need of funds.

    After that you can continue to work with the electric company for a payment.

    On a separae note: why is anyone responsible for your utility company not coming out and checking your meter? This seems really fishy and you should talk to your state agencies that govern your utilities.

    • ArtlessDodger says:

      I have the same question as Loias. Why is it that the utility company can estimate your meter, then determine their estimate was wrong, and charge you? I’d actually like to know the answer.

      • GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

        Because they estimate based on past usage, then finally get to the meter and see the actual usage reading. You still used the electricity.

        • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

          That doesn’t explain a justification for making him pay the entire difference in one month when it appears to be 6+ months of miscalculation on their part.

          My suggestion was really to see if their actions were legal because they seem to have no read the meter for 6+ months. At the least, it would make me think a complaint to the proper state agency is in order.

          • macoan says:

            Other things missing from the store (along with why Electric Company could not access the meter) – is dates.

            When was the last call to the electric company – and when was the account scheduled to be deducted. Maybe it was the same day and the electric company did not have time to adjust the payment. (All the store said was he checked today to find it done – done when???)

            Of course I would be interested in knowing why the meter was not able to be accessed – normally I would think if the person was unable to read the meter after a couple of months, a knock on the door or at least a notice put on the door – or a call to the house to say when they would be back and to have the meter accessible would be in order.

            In my area, they upgraded all meters to be able to read remotely from about 100 feet or less – so the meter person can just drive down the road, and collect the data from each meter.

      • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

        It’s not uncommon for estimates to be wrong it’s typically adjusted for the next month when the meter is actually read. It may mean having to pay or be credited a hundred dollars.

        If the meter isn’t read for months on end, then the estimates can be really off. Usually, there’s some sort of indication on the bill that it’s based on estimates — My power company has a bar graph, with actual readings in black and estimates in white of the past 12 months. It’ll also show the current usage with “(estimate)” afterwards.

        If someone installs a padlock on the gate to their backyard or leaves their dog out back all day, I could see the power company not reading the meter for months on end.

    • Rachacha says:

      Estimates are not uncommon, however an actual reading is typically conducted every other month worst case. In my area, meaters are read every month, but because of some significant snowfall this winter the utility opted to estimate the reading because they could not get in the neighborhood to read the meter. In my parent’s area, they read every other month and estimate the rest because they do not have enough people to read every meter every month. For most people this is not a huge issue because the estimates and actual readings usually are not that far off and in the end it all works out, but in this case, it appears as if the electric meter may have been inside the house, and the utility company could not gain access to the meter for several months. Apparently, the estimates were low and he now needs to pay the difference.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        It sounds like, based on his words, that it hasn’t been accessed for 2010, which is ridiculous of his utility company. He doesn’t state why, which is an important factor. But they should be check, as you said, a minimum of bi-monthly.

    • Scooby111 says:

      It is the homeowner’s responsibility to make sure that the meter can be accessed. A locked gate, rowdy dog, or snowy conditions can make it unsafe or impossible for a meter reader to access the meter. If the meter can’t be read, they will charge you an estimated bill based upon past usage at the house or location. Once the meter can be read, they will adjust estimated usage to actual usage. If he had used less than the estimated amount, he would have gotten a credit. In this case, he used more.

    • Dalsnsetters says:

      The OP should go to whatever commission it is in his state that regulates utilities. I used to work for a third party billing company that handled water and electricity readings for apartment complexes. In most states, the longest period a meter can go without having a physical reading done on it is 6 months, regardless of the reason for the reading being estimated (snow, dogs, locked gates, whatever). Some states say you can estimate one month but have to have an actual reading the next. Some states say you can estimate for NO MORE THAN six months.

      My electricity company (Progress Energy in FL) has actually sent me nasty letters when they couldn’t get in to read my meter. That was several years ago and they have now switched to digital readings so they never even have to look at my meter. They are able to simply download the meter readings into their computers and generate my bill (yes, I compare the readings on my bill to the actual meter reading…no mistakes yet!).

      Regardless, speak to your state’s utility commission. 6+ months of estimated readings is not allowed.

  2. Jthedoc says:

    I would start by finding a Book and calling them again at an off-peak hour.
    If you get nowhere, then an EECB or a Call to upper management is in order.

  3. Murph1908 says:

    Argh!

    Enough with the automatic withdrawls already!

    Nothing you can do, I am afraid. I don’t see any way to get them to give you back money you did owe, despite a verbal agreement to let you pay in installments.

    • RvLeshrac says:

      This is why I set up a couple of maximum-payment-limit CC#s with BoA. The companies that I auto-bill-pay with *can’t* charge me more than the limit I’ve set. And they last until I delete them, so I can close my payment account at any time without hurting my credit or my main accounts.

  4. Leela says:

    My sis-in-law had something similar happen. She kept calling Edison, to tell them she was not getting an electric bill and that the meter was not moving. They ignored her for a year. Then, they figured out on their own the meter was broken and charged her for a year’s worth of electricity all at once. At least they were willing to work with her.

  5. full.tang.halo says:

    And people still wonder why I write checks/use online billpay (virtual checks)….

    You wouldn’t give your bank account #’ to some random person would you? When you give it to a company you’re doing the same thing, some random CSR can totally bone you and there isn’t a thing you can do to stop them.

    • FrugalFreak says:

      +1

    • kc2idf says:

      Word.

      I’ve had a few occasions lately where this organization or that has wanted to go to ACH payment (Automatic Clearing House = banking term for money withdrawn in this fashion) and I have stuck to my guns on this point: All payments to you will be pushed to you by me, no exceptions.

      In truth, there are exceptions, but I don’t tell them that.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      A random person on the street isn’t regulated by state and federal laws, doesn’t provide me with an address, phone number, and customer service, and doesn’t actually provide me a service. They aren’t subject to legal backlash (since they are random I will never know who they are or see them again).

      These analogies never make any sense, and in no way provide any real evidence about why or why not to engage in auto-debit transactions.

      • craptastico says:

        if you really need evidence as to why not to do it after reading this article than i don’t think anybody can help you understand. if he didn’t have autodebit none of this would have happened. the same can be said for about 20% of the articles on consumerist

        • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

          No 20% of the articles would have been solved if they made their own X at home.

          Autodebit hasn’t been a big topic here. Consumerist should address it – or re-address it as a refresher as the case may be.

          • Destron says:

            auto debit is great…. except when something like this happens. Then they just dip in and take what they want and you can’t do anything about it. If the OP did not have auto debit then he could tell them FU ill pay you when I get the money, or at least had time to make arrangements to come up with the cash.

            I don’t give ANY companies ANY banking information. A couple of them charge me a couple dollars more a month because I don’t use auto-debit but I don’t care. Saves me the headache of this sort of thing.

      • full.tang.halo says:

        Clearly the OP’s current situation is a reason not to do auto-debit transactions. I’ve personally fought over auto-debit’s, checks that have been deposited by COMPANIES they were not made out to, and credit card disputes for a family member, my work and personally.

        Wanna know which one was the easiest, the chargeback. Others took weeks or months to fully resolve.

        • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

          I’ve never had a single issue, so my anecdotal story evens out yours :-)

          Perhaps consumerist should do an article on how to properly correct erroneous auto-pay deductions.

          • full.tang.halo says:

            Where you’ve never had a problem, you still opened the door for it to happen to you. My way stops it from being a possibility.

      • Putaro says:

        Those auto-withdrawal schemes let someone else screw you badly. A friend of mine had her mortgage payment being withdrawn automatically. When she refinanced her mortgage her new mortgage company started withdrawing funds and the old mortgage company continued to withdraw their mortgage payment.javascript:void(0);

        They may be regulated, you may know where they are, but once they have your cash in their account it is almost impossible to get it back in a timely fashion.

    • chimpski says:

      Never ever give this information to people! Especially like this! You are not going to get screwed every time, but sometime, someone will get screwed. At least use your credit card if you MUST do this, then your money doesn’t disappear.

    • sven.kirk says:

      And people still wonder why I write checks/use online billpay (virtual checks)….
      You wouldn’t give your bank account #’ to some random person would you?

      You still give out your account info when you write a check. Real or virtual. I have four accounts, at different banks, and all place account info on the virtual check.

      The only way to prevent the ‘boning’, is to pay only by money order.

      • Nyall says:

        your point?
        If they use the information off of a check to withdraw money thats a crime.

        • RvLeshrac says:

          And if they use the information you give them to withdraw funds without your consent, regardless of the information you’ve given them, that’s *ALSO* a crime.

          What was your point?

          • Nyall says:

            Maybe I read him wrong but Mr. sven.kirk was expressing the sentiment that there could still be unauthorized transfers just because the electric company would have the required information from checks.

            I’m calling bullocks on that.

            You don’t have to worry about a company you do business with using information from checks to authorize deposits. Because if they do it, that is a crime and you’ve hit law suit (small claims?) pay dirt.

            Granted identity theft by employees is still a concern and a reason for not using checks, but that’s another issue.

  6. rbb says:

    In most states, it is the Public Utilities Commission that handles the complaints. Call the office of your local State representative and ask them to help you out.

    • womynist says:

      That’s what I was going to suggest. He could also request to have the call pulled so he has proof that the Electric Co reassured him that they would not take all the money out at once. There’s a reason they record calls on CS lines, and this is a perfect example.

      • Puddy Tat says:

        How much would you like to bet that this recording is unable to be located at this time?

      • Destron says:

        My Aunt worked as a CSR for Cingular way back in the day. She said they record every single call that comes in to that place, but they put that disclaimer the call MAY be recorded. She said more than once a recording was requested and they just said that particular call was not recorded.

  7. dulcinea47 says:

    If they have an office nearby, I would go there and talk to a live human being… I find them more helpful (usually) than the phone CSRs.

  8. Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg says:

    File an immediate complaint with the Board of Public Utilities (or Public Utilities Commision, or whatever it is called in your state).

    I don’t know how effective that is in your state, but in my part of New Jersey it lights a big old fire under their ass to resolve the problem.

  9. Spider Mann says:

    You use PGE, don’t you?

    I had to take a second loan out on my car two years ago to pay off a winter bill from them. I work from home, and in that house I had my computer set up so that I could see anyone who came and went, which also counted for those who read meters.

    PGE never once came to read my meter, they just did the “guesstimated” amount of usage based on the prior year. I did read the meter however, took photos, wrote it down in a notebook specifically for that purpose, and kept track of the bills. The reason is that PGE had been ripping me off on the amount of power I had been using for over two years, even after having had them and independent people come out to check the meter (PGE said nothing wrong, independent people said something wrong).

    Long story short (too late) they hit me with a $3000 bill for the month of December. This was for one person living in a house wherein I was only in the residence for less than half of that month, as I was at a convention for the other half. The only things running in that house when I was gone were the fridge, two clocks, and an automatic turn on/turn off outside light.

    When I was home it was only fridge, two clocks, that light, inside low power light, computer, and occasional use of the stove. There was nothing to use as much power as they stated, especially since I kept the heat off that whole month.

    Yet, they wouldn’t waiver on the fees and shut the power off, which I couldn’t have as I needed the ability to work. So I got screwed into the aforementioned second loan on my car which added two more years of payments to a car that was over 10 years old by the time I paid it off.

    So, you use PGE don’t you, OP? Cause it sounds like their MO.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      Are you saying the meter was broken or the information was incorrectly recorded by the meter reader?

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Sounds like you took it in the arse when you should have gone to court. If you had a third party inspect and found something wrong and the utility co. disagreed and then slapped an impossible bill against you, it seems like the right action.

  10. Destron says:

    Something similar happened around where I live last year to several hundred people. Seems they don’t actually read your meter any more, they just drive by your house and point a radar type gun at your meter that’s supposed to capture the information on it. They found out that it was not calibrated correctly and were undercharging a lot of people and slapped them all with bills in the hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.

  11. vicarp says:

    You should check with someone on whether you are getting ripped off….

    On another note, you said it was huge and I almost fell over when i saw it was just $350…ah – sometimes i’d be nice to go back to not owning a home and having HUGE bills every month!

    • Pax says:

      … some of us don’t exactly make big wads of cash, you know. $350 is about half of an entire month’s income for me, and I’d tend to agree with calling it “huge” if slapped with bill that large, unexpectedly. Heck, my share of the RENT is only about 2/3 that much!

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      I was thinking the same thing. If it’s a cold winter, it’s not uncommon for us to have a $350 gas bill.

    • ames says:

      Privilege check! Huge is relative, dude. I’d have a heart attack over a $350 bill, if that wasn’t what I was accustomed to paying.

  12. GoAT says:

    I actually work for an electric company in the area of meter reading access issues, so this actually comes up on a regularly basis. Basically, in my company, we allow for a meter to be estimated for up to a year before the system will no longer accept estimates. This includes phoned in customer reads, etc. This only ever happens when we do not have access to the meter for this entire time. We are scheduled to read the meters every other month, so that is 6 missed opportunities. Most of the time, the meter not being read is the fault of the customer, not the company.

    People lock their gates, lock their houses, arrange to meet our meter readers and never show up, don’t care that they’re getting billed estimates – until we get an actual read, realize that we’ve been underestimating their bill for 12 months, and now they have to pay the difference.

    So to the OP, first check to see WHY was your bill being estimated in the first place, why did you not recognize that it was being estimated, and why were no steps taken to resolve the access issue? So no one called you regarding no access to the meter? Why didn’t you call the electric company?

    Anyways, they definitely shouldn’t have withdrawn the whole amount after setting up an installment plan, so that much is on them, and they should probably be able to refund your money if you are able to stay on the phone and escalate the issue properly (calmly, patiently, etc). The CSRs don’t care about the couple hundred dollars you owe, they’re just doing their job.

    • Dalsnsetters says:

      If you guys are estimating their bills for 12 months, I sure as hell wouldn’t be advertising it on a public blog. Going that length of time is not allowed in ANY state. As I said in my post above, in some states the rules are you can only estimate every other month at the most. In some states, six months of estimated readings is the max allowed. In NO state is 12 months of estimated readings allowed.

      Also, it is not allowed that you guys just “decide” to do actual readings every other month. Estimated readings are only allowed in extreme cases. Laziness, poor scheduling, and understaffing are not extreme cases. At the very least, your company should at least be ATTEMPTING to read the meters every month.

      OP needs to call his states’ utility commission. And I wanna know what state *you* are in so I can call YOUR states’ utility commission. Your company really needs to “read the rules” on meter readings.

      (In case my post above was not read, I used to work for a third party company that handled meter reading and billing for multiple apartment complexes in 12 different states. These rules, laws, whatever were drilled into our heads every month when we did the billings but our maximum was three months, unless it’s one of those states where you can only estimate one month then you HAVE to get an actual reading.)

      • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

        “Estimated readings are only allowed in extreme cases. “

        Must be a state by state thing. I’ve never lived anywhere (7 different states) where gas & electric meters were checked every month. It’s always been every other month or longer during inclement weather, dogs in the backyard, or locked gates.

        • craptastico says:

          in NJ mine are checked every month for the most part. during the winter months they may go a few months between readings, but unless there’s snow it’s done every month.

      • GoAT says:

        Not in the states, but thanks for getting so angry. Just trying to provide some context from the other side of the story.

  13. Nighthawke says:

    EECB, PUC, make it clear in the EECB you are consulting council as well as the state utility regulators.

    This might freeze them in their tracks and reconsider their actions.

  14. Abradax says:

    Never give a company direct access to your checking account.

  15. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:
  16. Aaronjk says:

    First- STOP DOING AUTO PAY!!!! Write a check after they mail a bill! I pay all my bills online or mail the check myself every month. Guess what, never an overdraft.

  17. jayde_drag0n says:

    Who is it with? If it is PG&E I have all of the contact info for them and the CPUC to file an eecb

  18. brinks says:

    Can the OP report it as a fraudulent withdrawal so he can get a temporary credit from his bank while the matter is investigated? I’m not sure it would work in this case, but it’s worth a shot.

    I had some issues with my gas company and the PUCO never got back to me. However, the OP needs to be vigilant about getting on the phone with a supervisor. My matter was resolved after making several phone calls, massive hold times, and dealing with several rude supervisors who flat out told me I must be lying. Finally, they listened to the recording of the phone call that my problems stemmed from. I was right and I got my credit.

    There should be a record of any phone calls, so there should be proof the OP agreed to a financing plan. However, it’s like pulling teeth trying to get anyone to pull the recordings.

  19. EarthAngel says:

    I don’t understand why the meter readings aren’t wirelessly transmitted.

    • brinks says:

      Yeah. I mean, it’s not like it’s 2010 or something.

    • Not Given says:

      The rural electric is just setting up to start doing this in the future, there is a lot of money involved and equipment to install. Then there was a massive ice storm with millions in damage so I bet it will take a while.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      Because it’s cheaper to pay somebody to inspect meters than it is to upgrade entire neighborhoods.

    • kennedar says:

      My company deals with the upgrades to electric and gas systems to become Automated Meter Reader (AMR) compliant. As a best case, you are looking at millions of dollars to upgrade the entire system. I just had a client yesterday estimate to me that the new technology costs about $50 for wireless reader, plus an additional $65 for the meter plus labor to install on single family homes. While this does not seem like much, most systems have hundreds of thousands or millions of homes. Commerical and large residential systems cost more. There is also the added cost of the technology to read the meters (often very expensive laptops and antenae).

      Most utility companies are facing the same economic constraints as everyone else, plus the regulator boards are trying to avoid utility cost increases right now due to the economy. There are many people who simply can not afford even an extra few dollars a month to pay for these. Consequentally, even though I believe that AMR is the most cost effective way to go, its still going to be years before utility is on it.

  20. JANSCHOLL says:

    Some have An actual estimate every other month? I am envious. I havent had an actual person read my meter in over 3 1/2 years. I get a card to read it myself (I am alone and don’t let anyone in my home other than my husband when he is here). I read the meter, set the card out as directed amd still get an estimate. Sometimes hundreds of dollars off by overestimating. I barely use any gas and in summer its only the water heater yet last month it was estimated as if I were heating my home in winter. In june the meter reader said it was an actual read, but the number on my bill is way off from the number it actually was. He does his job? I am so close to filing with the state regulatory people. Why in this day and techy times do we need an actual person to look at the meters? Why do we not have remote reads?

  21. sirwired says:

    Report the charge as fraudulent. Next, call customer service back and make sure you record the call. (Most cell phones can do this.)

  22. Not Given says:

    Never give your bank info to anyone.

  23. Awesome McAwesomeness says:

    This is why you never give your account number to anyone for a “payment plan.” At that point, you have no control over how much they take out. We had someone try that on us and told them the only way they were getting paid is through automatic payments scheduled with our bank.

    I’m not sure what you should do. It seems like you may be out of luck on this since you did owe them the money and you did give them the card information. Even a charge back wouldn’t be that honest since you did owe them the money.

  24. Zany Crazy Guy says:

    How do you spell STATE UTILITIES COMMISSION!

  25. 420greg says:

    Our electric company will enforce their easement if you block access to the meter.

    You will get a code enforcement notice and if you do not provide access to the meter they (code enforcement) will starting fining you $250 a day.

    We had a lot of people parking their cars over the water meter so the water could not be shut off.

  26. Bog says:

    Noone should ever use “Auto-Pay.” or at least auto-pay that pulls from the account. Use your checking account bill pay service to pay bills for you.

    Try to do a charge back. You ave an agreement.

    I kind of had the opposite problem once. My power-bills suddenly went out of control. Took almost a year to fix it. Turned out the meter was spinning twice as fast as it should have been. Would they give us a check for the extra I paid… No way, they would just credit our bills over the next three months. —

    They put in a new meter that requires no meter-maid to come out and read it. Most of the meters now say “CellNet” on a box in the meter. It somehow transmits the power use as often as every 10 to 60 minutes. (Yeah – you can go on line and get super detailed use of your electrical use.)

  27. ahleeeshah says:

    I had a local hospital ignore my payment plan with them as well. I’d been making regular monthly payments, and then ended up getting a call from a collection agency. I ended up getting it resolved by posting something on their public Facebook page. That page is there to create a good relationship with the community, so someone posting “Your billing department ignored the agreement they made with me and turned over my bill to collections even though I’ve paid more than my due amount every month” looked bad.

  28. consumerd says:

    This is why I only use mycheckfree.com, AmerenIP was notorious for this from their own website. In mycheckfree.com I have to login and make a payment. They can’t just “help themselves!”

  29. doinkyTHEcup says:

    This is very similar to what just happened to my neighbor. After 2 months of exorbitant estimated bills and actually going to the Utilities Commission at least once a week, they finally admitted that the problem was their fault. Turns out that their computer systems had some kind of bug that was causing random people to get higher than normal bills or worse yet, even having their power shut off. The latter of which happened to him the same day he paid one of his bills in person. *AND* even though he spoke to many managers with his bills, payment receipts and meter readings they insisted that whatever the computer said he owed, he did so because the computer is never wrong. Can you believe that?