What Can You Do When The Utility Company Says You Owe A Bill You Can’t Pay?

Image courtesy of JohnDonges

Having your gas cut off in the middle of winter isn’t just an annoyance; it can put your health and life at risk. So when your utility company claims you owe them thousands of dollars, you might feel pressured into paying just to keep warm. If you try to dispute the bill and refuse to pay, you may be without heat for months. But if you make a deal to pay some of what you allegedly owe, will you be able to plead your case later?

This is an issue we began looking into after our recent stories on a Philadelphia family who was hit with a $14,000 bill from the utility company for “unauthorized gas usage.”

The utility alleged that the family had tampered with the meter. The family denied any wrongdoing and pointed out that they were the ones who brought the problem to the utility’s attention in the first place.

The issues and policies raised in this story are going to vary from state to state, so we looked at the options available for this Pennsylvania family.

Payment Agreements

In their case, the family got their gas restored after agreeing to pay Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) $9,000 — $5,000 less than the original PGW demand. The still-hefty amount is to be paid down in smaller monthly installments.

As PGW notes, this sort of payment plan isn’t just for customers with disputed or outrageously large gas bills. Anyone who is facing a shut-off notice or have lost service can contact the company about payment agreements.

Many utilities offer similar plans, so if your gas is turned off because of an unpaid or disputed bill, you can inquire about payment plans to keep the heat on.

Filing a Complaint

If you’re a Pennsylvania resident and you do want to dispute a bill, you can file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission. There are two kinds of disputes you can file: informal or formal.

“When an informal complaint is filed through the Bureau of Consumer Services, a BCS investigator works to facilitate discussion between the parties in order to resolve the complaint,” PUC explains to Consumerist. It’s a much less time-consuming process than the formal complaint process, and “usually results in a quicker resolution to the case.”

A formal complaint process is more complicated, and involves appearing before an administrative law judge, where the burden of proof is on the consumer to prove his or her case.

If you do decide to file a complaint, PUC says in a guide for consumers [PDF], you need to tell the utility company that the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction, either in writing or by notifying the company representative by phone.

“At this point, the inquiry you make to the utility company becomes a dispute,” PUC guidelines dictate.

The company then has 20 days to respond to a dispute, and must provide the customer with all the information necessary to decide whether they need to proceed further with the matter.

“Meter test results and any other information related to your dispute should also be included when appropriate,” the PUC says. “In addition, the company must tell you of your right to register a further complaint with the PUC and how to do this. The utility must make the written utility company report available to you upon request.”

If you don’t agree with the company’s response, you can then file an informal complaint within 10 days of notification or mailing of a utility company report (in order to maintain utility service while you appeal).

Do I Need A Lawyer?

You don’t need a lawyer to file either kind of complaint, but in either case, you’ll need to do a bit of preparation beforehand, attorney Rob Ballenger at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia tells Consumerist.

First of all, you should gather all the records you can from the utility to find out what it is they think is going on, if you haven’t received that information already.

“If, over a normal period of time, your usage shows the kind of seasonal variation or adjustment you would expect, then you have a good reason to say, there’s a question here about whether PGW is right or wrong, about whether unauthorized usage occurred,” Ballenger notes.

Ballenger says that when his firm does decided to take a case and represent a consumer in the complaint process, there’s a lot of discovery involved.

“We ask for the names of the people who investigated it, and try to establish that the unauthorized usage didn’t occur, or if it did, is someone else is responsible, like a previous tenant,” he says. “We would be basically trying to carry the burden that the customer has to prove they didn’t do something PGW says is prohibited.”

Am I Signing My Rights Away?

Some people with disputed bills may worry that agreeing to a payment plan is effectively an admission of liability, and that they may be signing away any right to fight that invoice through official channels or the court system.

A representative for PUC tells Consumerist that Pennsylvania residents are not giving up this right when reaching an installment payment arrangement with their utility.

“The filing of an informal or formal complaint will not void any payment arrangement,” explains the rep.

Again, we can only say that this applies to Pennsylvania residents. Check with your state’s utilities regulator for more information.

How Can I Prevent This From Happening To Me?

As for keeping this from happening in the first place, you could ask the utility to come out regularly to inspect your meter to make sure it’s working safely.

On the up side, you’d avoid a leaky meter, but if the utility does check it and find it’s been tampered with, you run the risk — like the family we’ve been covering — of being blamed for any unauthorized usage. However, if the inspections have been regular, you’d probably only be on the hook for questionable usage that occurred after the previous meter check. In the case of the Philadelphia family, PGW is charging them for more than a decade’s worth of gas.

Starting off with a meter that’s working properly is also helpful. Ballenger points out that in Pennsylvania, PUC has proposed a new rule that would ensure customers the right to a verification of automatic meter reading.

“Upon a customer request, the public utility shall secure an in-person meter reading to confirm the accuracy of an automatic meter reading device when a customer disconnects service or a new service request is received. A public utility may charge a fee, as provided in a Commission approved tariff,” the proposed rule reads.

In any case, your safety is the most important thing. If you smell gas, call your utility company right away, no matter where you live.

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