The first year I lived in Florida, I was amused by the temperatures that Floridians considered “cold” in winter. But I wasn’t laughing when I got my first January electric bill and discovered just how much it costs to heat a Florida home in the winter. More recently, a leak in the pump of our in-ground pool left me with a water bill three times the normal amount. While that bill put a dent in our budget, I was fortunate that I was able to handle it. But I know that’s not always easy if you’re on limited income, or on a fixed income due to retirement or disability.
What happens if you run into problems with a utility bill? What are your rights?
To get answers to some of the most common problems facing customers, I spent time talking with Charlie Harak, managing attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. He’s also the coauthor of The National Consumer Law Center Guide to The Right of Utility Consumers.
Harak says the first thing to understand is that most consumer protections apply only to gas and electric services. “Water is usually provided by a government provider (municipal and rural electric co-op) which is far less regulated,” he said. Similarly, propane or heating oil that is delivered is typically not regulated. Furthermore, he says there are no federal laws that specifically address the rights of utility customers. Those rights fall under state laws.
As the NCLC guide explains, gas and electric service is typically regulated by state Public Utility Commissions (PUCs). Services may be provided by Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs), government-owned entities (munis), or rural electric cooperatives (co-ops). Among the three, IOUs are often the most highly regulated.
With that background in mind, here are five common utility bill problems, and what you can do about them.
I just heard from a debt collector about a very old utility bill. Isn’t there a statute of limitations for these debts?
Yes, the statute of limitations may prevent a utility company, or debt collector who purchased one of these old debts, from successfully suing you to collect. That time period is based on state law, and will typically be “the same as the statute of limitations for contract actions,” says Harak. However, it’s not a good idea to ignore calls or letters about an old debt. If the company or collector takes you to court and you don’t show up to raise the statute of limitations as a defense, they may get a default judgment against you.
Third-party debt collectors who collect consumer debts (including utility bills) are regulated under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Anytime a debt collector contacts you about a debt you have the right to receive a debt collection notice by mail (if they called you first), and then to request written validation of that debt. That gives you time to research the debt to figure out whether you owe it and what you can do about it.
If you confirm the debt is outside the statute of limitations, you can write the debt collector explaining that you know the debt is too old, and ask them not to contact you again. (The FDCPA applies only to outside collection agencies, not to companies collecting their own debts.)
At the same time, you may not be able to get service again if you have an outstanding unpaid bill. If you continue to live in that utility company’s service area, you may need to find a way to pay the bill to avoid future problems.
Image: williac, via Flickr.com