Is this legal?
October 24, 2006 8:35 AM   Subscribe

I recently recieved a bill from my local utilities company stating that they had accidentily undercharged me for the last year. Now they want me to pay 438.53. Here's the letter, is there a way out of this?

Here it is:

Dear Telf;

We recently determined that the gas meter at the above address had malfunctioned. The meter had not registered consumption correctly since your 07/01/05 read date. The meter was changed on 06/30/06.

Based on your consumption history, an adjustment is being made to cover the unbilled consumption during this time. The additional charge of $ 438.53 will be billed in 12 monthly installments of 36.54 beginning with your next bill.

Please accept our sincere apology for any inconvenience that this problem may cause you. If you have any questions please call our Customer Service Division at 555-555-5555.


So what's the deal?

Some things to consider:

This is a house rented out to 3 people. Over the course of the year, 2 of my regular roommates were abroad and NOT using the utilities. This seems to invalidate the charges based on my consumption history.

Also during that period some other people subleased (under the table). Am I expected to hunt them down and retroactively charge them?

Finally, I've been paying gas bills over this period. At no time did my bills drop by $40 a month. How is it that I can possibly owe a difference of $40 a month? That seems like a huge adjustment. Our bills have always been around $115. How can this adjustment be almost 40% of our bill? Our recent bills do not have a gas charge that makes up 40% of our bill.

I asked for an itemized bill from customer service, but the bill did not show my gas charges.

How can a utilities company arbitrarily charge a house based on its consumption "history", especially in a student area?

BTW This is in Florida.
posted by Telf to Law & Government (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Our bills have always been around $115.

How long is "always" -- in other words, how many years total have you been living there?

In any case, I believe natural gas prices have been rising nationally for awhile now -- you don't have to be consuming more to be paying more.
posted by scody at 8:41 AM on October 24, 2006

Response by poster: That seems besides the point as the charges should reflect the amount owed at the time. Unless they are applying current prices to old bills which seems even shadier to me.

The roommate living here the longest has been here about 3 years now. At no point, certainly not between the above mentioned dates did our bills drop a statistically significant amount. Of course we don't really have the population to apply any decent stats, but that one year period of under charge was not any lower than the the previous or current time period. (Before 07/05 and since 6/06)
posted by Telf at 8:47 AM on October 24, 2006

Yes, you have to pay.

This happened to us when it turned out we had a second electrical meter feeding part of our apartment that we had not known about. Once they discovered the error, we were required to pay for the energy we'd used.

Another time, we were asked to pay a gas bill that had been adjusted because they had been billing us based on our average consumption-- once they checked the meter a couple months later and realized we'd been using more, we were asked to pay the difference.

In the first of these cases I was able to get them to compromise on the charge because of the notification error. On the second one I got it put on a payment plan, and I'm still paying it off even though I've since moved.

I hope someone has a solution for you that doesn't involve having to pay it all, and I wish I'd thought to Ask MetaFilter before I went ahead and did so.
posted by hermitosis at 8:49 AM on October 24, 2006

At no time did my bills drop by $40 a month.

Your entire bill or the portion that you pay?
Did you save your old bills?
posted by peeedro at 8:49 AM on October 24, 2006

You should call and talk to them about the fact that your bill hasn't changed by the amount they're adjusting, and see if they can explain. How much does your rommates' absence affect the gas bill if you're still heating the apartment?

On the issue of under-the-table subletters, you're totally out of luck. Even if you track them down, you can't oblige them to pay you without a contract.
posted by Dasein at 8:51 AM on October 24, 2006

Wait, you're in Florida, you don't need to heat the place - what do you use gas for? Cooking? How does it cost that much each month?
posted by Dasein at 8:53 AM on October 24, 2006

I had this happen to me in a rental unit. Previous owners were normal people, I had a room full of computers running 24hrs a day. The meter was inside and for whatever reason we always missed the meter reader. A year went by before they got in and as would be expected the usage had tripled, they we're only billing us for the estimate based on past usage up until that point.

That bill was painful.
posted by paxton at 9:05 AM on October 24, 2006

Best answer: A utility watchdog group in your area (we have the Citizens' Utility Board here in Chicago) may have some more specific, and helfpul, information for you. Check it out.

As an aside, this is the second story of this type I've heard in the past month (the other involved water, and again, a "broken" meter that was replaced). Even though I'm paranoid by nature, it smells fishy.

Good luck.
posted by CMichaelCook at 9:16 AM on October 24, 2006

Response by poster: I meant that at no time did our entire bills drop by about $40 consistently.

I asked the utility company for an itemized list of bills from the very start of my roommates account 3 years ago. Of course the itemized list does NOT show gas charges.

Of the bills that we still have, our gas bill is usually around 12 dollars TOTAL per month.

None of these bills are from the winter, but this is Florida. If we use the heat, it's from October-March worst case scenario. That's only on the cold days as well.

So assuming that they didn't charge us gas at all for 14 months, that's about 170 total. Even if our winter bills are that much higher, the period in dispute only has 6 months that we might even possibly use the heat.

That 438 dollars just doesn't seem right. Especially since the utility company has failed to show us a break down of our gas charges.
posted by Telf at 9:22 AM on October 24, 2006

you're going to have to pay this. and this really doesn't sound that fishy. i've heard of this hundreds of times.

they were previous billing you based on past usuage. when they finally did check the meter, they readjusted your bill to reflect the changes in your usage. even if you weren't running your heat that much, there are plenty of reasons why your bill could be expensive. if you have an inefficent boiler or your home isn't well insulated, your house will leak gas and heat like crazy. if you are keeping your heat at a rather high level, then your bill will be higher. if your water heater is gas based, it'll use it up. during one month in ithaca new york (and it was one of the coldest ones in recent memory), I had my heat at 58 and still ended up with a 500 dollar heating bill due to a poorly insulated house (boy...was that a fun surprise to find out).

also, you are just receiving this bill now so there is a good bet that your meter is over from july 2005 to now which is roughly 14 months. and just be glad that they aren't adding the 438 to your current bill. they've giving you a chance to spread out the payment. also, current gas prices are much higher than they use to be.

but, seriously, you already have your answer. call their customer service and talk to them. ask for an itemized charge list, bug them on the phone, etc. see what they say.
posted by Stynxno at 9:40 AM on October 24, 2006

I think several responses are missing the point here.

Yes, if the meter is not checked and they are billing you for average consumtion and you go over, then suddenly they check the meter, well... then you pay.

However this is not the case here.

The utility is stating that his meter "supposedly" was reading wrong and thus they "estimated" his usaged during that time...

I would not pay that mount until they show you exactly how they came to the figure. I would request a full break down of the months they used to accuire such "usage" history and the amount that was billed to you during that time people. The proof of the pudding so to speak will be within the 5 or 6 months leading up to this "malfunction" and several months after it. If they can come up with a number to charge you extra they can show you how they came to such a figure.
posted by crewshell at 9:49 AM on October 24, 2006

Stynxo, this poster is in FL not NY, the weather is quite diffrent, also the "broken" meter was replaced on 06/30/06, so thats only 12 months of possible misreadings. Not 14.

Bottom line, ask for the very specific calucations that formed this bill and copies of your past gas statements. If the numbers pan out, well you will probably have to pay. If they dont, well then there you go...
posted by crewshell at 9:57 AM on October 24, 2006

Send them $5 in pennies each month and enclose a note each time saying you "accidentally sent them pennies instead of a check."
posted by camworld at 9:57 AM on October 24, 2006

Best answer: Stynxno, you have the sequence exactly wrong - the OP was getting billed from meter readings, which the utility company subsequently decided had been inaccurate and reverted to retroactively charging him based on previous usage history. This is extremely fishy, in my opinion, and I would not pay until they can demonstrate that you actually used more gas (in cubic feet) than you were previously charged for.

Telf: the numbers you want to pay attention to are NOT the dollar figures (which everyone has pointed out are not a constant measure of what you used) but the cubic feet or BTUs of gas you are being charged for. Your assumption is that, in your roomies' absence, your household consumed less gas in this most recent year than in the previous year. You are being chaged much more, in this newest retroactive billing, for the most recent year's usage. Force the gas company to tell you the number of BTUs or cubic feet they think you used, per month, in the re-billed period. If that figure does not make sense compared with your own records of previous years, or the records they provide, then raise a stink with your local regulating authority.

Also, there is the argument to be made that if their metering equipment was faulty, they cannot possibly prove you used ANY amount of gas they care to name.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 9:57 AM on October 24, 2006

if you regulated your consumption based on what the meter and bills were telling you your place was using, it isn't your fault that you were using all of the extra gas - it's the gas company's fault for not providing a functioning meter and giving you an incorrect idea of usage from which you based future usage. it's their fault, they should absorb the error. weep that at customer service, maybe something will click.
posted by soma lkzx at 10:35 AM on October 24, 2006

biglankybastard made the point i was going to make--they are estimating the gas they think you used--they have no proof that you actually used it. they do have proof that you didn't--the faulty meter.

at the least, this should be highly negotiable. at the most, you should not have to pay this at all. they are attempting to bill you for something they can't even prove they delivered.

call the #, and tell them now that you are not, under ank kind of circumstances, paying this on your bill, until they can prove that you used that gas.

if, for nothing else, get them to take it off the bill, and have them bill you seperately. if they won't do that, i'd not pay the 'extra' chage, and whatever late fees they rack up.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 10:37 AM on October 24, 2006

Best answer: Here are some things I'd make the company explain before paying them anything:

The meter had not registered consumption correctly since your 07/01/05 read date.

1) What is significant about that date?
2) How are they able to say the meter was correct before that date and not after?
3) How can they say that the meter was under-reading the consumption if the meter was defective? Ask them to produce the defective meter. Make them demonstrate that it fails in your favor and not theirs. If they can't produce the meter or demonstrate how it failed, counterattack and say that you feel the bills were too high and you want a refund.

Based on your consumption history, an adjustment is being made to cover the unbilled consumption during this time.

4) Does your consumption history include the time with the defective meter?
5) DEMAND that they provide you with records showing your consumption history for the entire time you've been a customer. Does that history support the defective meter theory?
6) Compare the consumption history to the weather history. Does it appear that you would have used the extra gas due to colder weather? If not, challenge them on how they arrived at the higher figure.
7) Check out the agreement you signed with them. Who owns the meter? If it's them, look for anything discussing defective equipment. Look for clauses determining how consumption is measured -- if the meter is the final say, tell 'em to go pound sand.

Of course, do all this courteously and act rationally. You and the company are two equal parties seeking an answer that both can accept as long as all the facts are known.

(On preview, I see I've mostly reiterated what others have said. I don't care -- I typed all this in and I'm not wasting it.)
posted by forrest at 10:46 AM on October 24, 2006

Based on your consumption history, an adjustment is being made to cover the unbilled consumption during this time.

For all you know, the gas company could have been over billing you when the meter was not working.
posted by malp at 11:24 AM on October 24, 2006

OTOH Who's to say the current meter is accurate? I'd go with what forrest suggested. They have to prove it. If they threaten to shut you off then you may be hard pressed to win, but you may be able to take them to the local utility board for a grievance.
posted by Gungho at 11:28 AM on October 24, 2006

I agree that you shouldn't have to pay this extra charge, since they can't prove how much gas you used, or strictly speaking, if you used any at all. Unfortunately, they have many means to punish you for not paying. If you care to get a lawyer, which will probably cost as much as the extra charge, you certainly could fight it quite effectively. However, if you go the route of flat out refusing to pay, they will refer the charge to a debt collection agency, which will then a big black mark on your credit report.

So if you're fighting this just on principle, get a lawyer, spend more money than the charge would have cost you. Do whatever you need to do to get them to stop fucking with you. If you don't have the resources to do that, fight it yourself. Call them, demand all the itemized lists you want. Tell the media, watchdog agencies, anyone that will listen for free. Maybe they'll withdraw the charge. If they don't, though, you're SOL.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 11:37 AM on October 24, 2006

As much as they annoy me, would be the perfect venue for something like this. Examine the BTUs and such as some of the previous posters have suggested, come up with a clear and coherent letter, and I'm sure they'd pick up the story and maybe get you some traction with the utility -- they've had success with stories a lot like these.
posted by incessant at 1:02 AM on October 25, 2006

And when you've ended the matter to your satisfaction, tell them to read the meter each month; no more "estimated" crap. I had a similar thing happen to me when I lived an apartment: I didn't realize they were billing me for estimated usage, and then I got hit with a $258 bill--for a tiny one-bedroom apartment! I called them to see what was going on, and they told me my previous bills were estimated; no one had been reading the meters, until one day when they finally came out to read the meters. After that experience, I made sure to tell any gas company I wanted actual readings every month.
posted by cass at 7:32 AM on October 25, 2006

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