What To Do When Your Utility Bill Is Wrong

Consumers have the right to question any charges on a bill which appear to be excessive or incorrect. Utility companies should be willing to work with customers, but mistakes can happen.

Few people living in the 21st century can avoid opening at least one account with the local utility company. Some rural residents may have their own water supply or an abundant source of firewood for heat, but they rarely own their own electric power plants. Most of us realize that dealing with a local utility company or co-op is a necessary part of modern living, even if we disagree with the rates or quality of service. If we fail to pay the bill, we could lose vital services (electricity, gas, water, garbage pickup, etc.). Cities may have some control over a utility company's policies, but providing utilities to private customers is a business venture, not a non-profit service.

So what do you do if a utility company's bill doesn't seem to match your own records or estimations? As a customer, you still have several options to pursue, including written complaints and face-to-face discussions with utility company managers or account representatives. Effective complaining is not always easy, but saying nothing will rarely result in an equitable settlement.

Here are some tips on dealing with a utility company's incorrect billing statement(s):

1. Become familiar with utility company jargon. Your bill may contain abbreviations and descriptions which are confusing to the average customer. Many bills contain a section which explains some of these terms, so familiarize yourself before pursuing a complaint. Know what a kilowatt hour of electricity should cost compared to the rate listed on your bill. Be aware of any additional utilities you may be paying for unintentionally. Sometimes a landlord will pay for water or garbage pickup, but the renter's bill will still contain similar charges.

If you visit the utility company in person to dispute a bill, their representative may try to use jargon to justify an erroneous surcharge. Knowing the actual meaning of those terms and comparing former bills to the disputed one should level the playing field.

2. Save previous bills for comparison. Many utility bills contain useful information such as previous usage and meter readings. If you can demonstrate that your average bill from the same month last year was significantly lower, then you might convince the utility company that something has changed. An undiscovered water leak between your home and the street may be causing a spike in your water bill, for example.

Utility companies generally want to believe their measuring devices are accurate, so they tend to assume a higher bill is the result of a change in a customer's habits. The reason this year's bill is higher than last year's bill is because the customer now has a heated pool and a new computer.

By demonstrating a discrepancy which would exceed the additional cost of those items, the customer can still prevail.

3. Ask for a calibration of the meter(s). Utility companies used to send trained employees directly to homes in order to check every meter manually. Some utility meters are still checked by readers in the field, but quite often these bills are estimated in order to reduce labor. The meters may actually be reading higher than usual, but no one from the utility company would know. Ask for a company meter reader to come out to your home and check the meters for miscalibrations or damage. The answer to an incorrect utility bill may lie in faulty estimations.

4. Be prepared to take your complaint up the chain of command. Customer representatives in the main lobby of a utility company are not the last word when it comes to billing disputes. If they fail to acknowledge all of your concerns, ask to speak to their supervisor. Present your evidence and remain polite but firm. Companies the size of utility providers can be very intimidating, but if you know you're right hold your ground. Utility companies can shut off any unpaid service, but they must do it legally. Until the actual utility company employee throws the disconnection switch, you can continue to dispute your bill. Even if you pay the bill under duress in order to keep your lights and water on, the company can still credit your account if you prevail.

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