Time Warner Cable and Charter do not automatically offer refunds or credits to their overcharged customers, according to the results of a US Senate investigation published this week. Comcast, DirecTV, and Dish, meanwhile, do offer refunds or credits for overcharges caused by company billing errors, the study found. Time Warner and Charter billing errors were mostly overcharges for equipment that its customers rent, including set-top boxes and routers. A Senate subcommittee monitored customer accounts for more than six years, and found that the two companies “made no effort to trace equipment overcharges to their origin unless customers specifically asked them to and did not provide notice or refunds to customers.” The subcommittee estimates that TWC has already overbilled customers $639,948 between January and April, and will overbill customers $1,919,844 by the end of 2016. As a result of the investigation, Charter informed the subcommittee that it overbilled customers by at least $442,691 per month. TWC said it corrects overcharges using an often buggy computer program. The company told the investigators that its aim is to correct only 80 percent of billing errors through the program. Last month, it did not correct any because the program crashed. Although overbilling still frequently occurs at Comcast, DirectTV, and Dish, they employ more advanced practices to detect it. In Dish’s case, the company has automatic protections that make it impossible for a customer’s rental equipment to be added or removed without triggering a change in the billing record. As a result of the investigation, TWC offered to provide an automatic one-month credit to all customers for each piece of overbilled equipment or service, while Charter has decided to give its customers a one-year credit for any equipment overcharges.
HARRISBURG — Starting the dishwasher, plugging in a hair-dryer or flicking on a light switch will register with utilities almost instantly when their customers are monitored by state-of-the-art electric meters. So-called “smart meters” represent about four in 10 electric meters installed across the state, and utilities appear to be running ahead of schedule in introducing them before a 2023 deadline. Upgraded meters that give electricity companies and their customers real-time information about energy use are long overdue, regulators say. “Power is still billed the way it was 100 years ago,” said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesman for the state’s Public Utility Commission. But consumer advocates cite downsides — including higher bills for some households. Others complain that customers shouldn’t be forced to accept the technology, even though it’s required by a 2008 state energy conservation law. Pennsylvania is slightly behind the curve in implementing smart meters. The meters are installed in more than 90 percent of homes in Nevada and Maine, according to a separate study this spring. More than half of the homes in at least 16 states have them. Pennsylvania’s progress is localized, with three of four smart meters installed in Philadelphia and its suburbs. In western Pennsylvania, PennPower has replaced old meters with the new technology, as well. In most of the state, the rollout begins this summer and continues during the next four years. The technology itself won’t translate into higher energy bills, say consumer advocates, lawmakers and industry officials. But it does allow utilities to charge based on the time of day, with higher rates for running appliances or the air conditioning when demand is greatest.
The sysadmin-activist at the center of a bizarre legal battle over a smart meter network in Seattle, Washington, says he never expected a simple records request to turn into a lawsuit. Phil Mocek told The Register that when he asked Seattle City Light, a public power utility, to provide details on the designs and rollout of its smart power meter grid, he was simply hoping to find out what security safeguards the city and hardware providers Landis+Gyr and Sensus USA planned to use. “We all assume these meters simply monitor the amount of energy usage in the home,” Mocek explained. “But they monitor it in real time in ways that other meters did not.” The worry, Mocek said, is that the city may have been convinced by the suppliers to install a network with poor security protections or insecure protocols that could place citizens at risk of having their energy-use remotely spied on or their personal information stolen. To find out more about the meters that the city was planning to install and the security measures in place to protect those meters, Mocek filed a request for documents under the Washington Public Records Act (PRA) via the MuckRock investigations website. This, says Mocek, is where things started to get real odd. The free-software advocate said that after an email exchange with Seattle City Light officials, he obtained some of the records and uploaded them to the web – only to be told that the smart meter suppliers objected to the release of the information on the grounds that the unredacted documents would disclose their trade secrets and open the public to terrorist attacks on their infrastructure. Mocek was given a mix of unredacted and redacted documents by the city, the meter makers complained, whereas he should only have received and published files they had censored. Seattle officials said they were not skilled enough to know for sure which parts to redact, so left it to the suppliers to edit the files – yet, unredacted information managed to make its way into Mocek’s hands and onto the internet.
The City of Yuma is moving forward with a lawsuit seeking restitution for water it says was stolen by Diamond Brooks, recently filing a document in court to adjust figures due to inaccurate readings on the meter used in the investigation. According to an April 7 filing in Yuma County Superior Court by the City of Yuma Attorney’s Office, the water meter was found to have an approximate 341 percent calibration error and it was disclosing the information to all parties as was required by law. City of Yuma spokesperson Dave Nash said while the error in the meter’s calibration has caused the city to adjust its figures, what it doesn’t change is that Diamond Brooks had an unauthorized connection to a fire suppression line and took water without paying for it. In November 2010, Yuma police began an investigation into the business, located at 3025 S. Avenue 4E, after receiving reports that the company had been stealing water, which it would then process and sell back to the public. It was initially thought that approximately 76.5 million gallons, which equates to a loss of over $168,000, were stolen during the course of the investigation. Nash said that the City of Yuma actually caught the error. He said that the water meter had been placed into evidence in the federal criminal trial against Diamond Brooks owner Philip Clark and that the City was able to retrieve it and have it tested by an independent engineering laboratory. Nash explained that the fire suppression line leading into the Diamond Brooks facility had a lower flow rate than a residential water line, which the water meter had been calibrated for, so when one gallon of water passed through the unauthorized connection fire suppression line, the meter recorded approximately 3.27 gallons. After the calibration error was discovered and the error factor determined, Nash said the City adjusted its figures in the lawsuit accordingly. Based on the new figures, Diamond Brooks allegedly took about 23 million gallons of water through the unauthorized connection to the fire suppression line instead of the 76.5 million gallons originally recorded on the meter during the course of the investigation. Those 22.9 million gallons, Nash said, would amount to $47,343.00 in unpaid water usage. He also said that there is evidence that Diamond Brooks was taking water for 33 months, not just the 19 months that were monitored. Clark, the owner of Yuma’s Diamond Brooks Water Company, who recently entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, is scheduled to be sentenced at 9:30 a.m. on May 12 in U.S. District Court in Phoenix. He had been charged with 18 counts of wire fraud, three counts of stolen property, five counts of money laundering, 12 counts of failure to pay taxes, eight counts of failure to file tax forms, and one count of making false statements. The charges stem from allegations that he failed to pay IRS taxes he collected from his employees, and did not file corporate and individual tax returns for several years. Clark, who remains out of custody while he awaits sentencing, could receive up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $10,000, or both. Probation is also available, and if he is sentenced to probation, the term can be for no more than five years. According to his admission statement contained in the plea agreement, Clark admitted that between Jan. 1, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2009, he failed to pay the IRS $297,234 that he collected from his employees for certain employment-related taxes. He also admits that on Sept. 30, 2011, he failed to pay the IRS more than $31,296 in taxes that had been withheld from employee paychecks.
OGDEN — Logan Sattelmair says she’s living her own version of the American dream. Sattelmair, 25, purchased her first home, on Van Buren Avenue in Ogden, last summer and is employed full-time with Ogden city’s Animal Services division. She says as a young, single homeowner, money can be tight. But she keeps a budget, works hard and is proud that she can provide for own needs. Nearly a year into taking the plunge, Sattelmair said a recent bill from Questar Gas threw a serious monkey wrench into her pattern, adding a small element of nightmare to the whole independent homeowner equation. On April 27, Sattelmair said she got a bill from Questar for $312. Sattelmair said her previous month’s gas bill for her two-bedroom home was $44. Throughout the winter months, her gas bills hovered around that number.
“When I saw that bill, I said, ’Holy crap, this is crazy,’” she said. “I instantly got up and turned the heat off. I had no idea what was going on. I thought maybe I had some kind of leak or something.”
After making a call to Questar, Sattlemair eventually found out her gas delivery system was working just fine. Her meter, on the other hand, was a different story.
“I was told by someone in customer service that they noticed my bill was lower than what the previous owner had been paying,” she said. “They said they sent someone over to check and the meter had been misreading my usage.”
Sattelmair was told she must backpay for the gas she used. Questar is allowing her to space the payment over six months, interest free, but she says even that will stretch her pocketbook thin.
“I am single, doing it all on my own,” she said. “This is going to be like having another $50 bill each month. I’m already living tight as it is.”
Questar spokesman Darren Shepherd said bad meter readings, while rare, can happen. He said the Utah natural gas tariff, which is regulated by the Utah Public Services Commission, allows Questar to make billing corrections regardless of the cause of error. (Details on the gas tariff can be found in a 142-page document available at Questar’s website.)
“It’s about paying for the gas you actually use,” Shepherd said, noting that sometimes billing errors occur on the opposite end of the spectrum and Questar overcharges customers, then must pay them back or credit their account.
For billing errors, Shepherd said customers are typically allowed to make payments without interest over a period equal to the time the account was misread.
Four Pittsburgh City Council members scolded the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority on Monday for ongoing customer service and billing issues — including in some cases thousands of dollars in incorrect charges and bills that fail to arrive — that have outraged constituents and monopolized their staffs’ time. Natalia Rudiak noted that her office still receives two to six PWSA-related complaints weekly, sometimes requiring several hours of attention. “It’s an inappropriate use of city taxpayer dollars to help navigate something that is an independent entity and not our responsibility,” she said. “We are simply relaying the anger that our constituency is relaying to us.” Interim Executive Director David Donahoe said a rushed “marriage” of a new billing system and new meter-interface units that use wireless technology to relay usage information caused incorrect billing, overwhelming customer service staff. PWSA’s board promised resources to right the issues, he said, adding that he has told employees that customers must be treated fairly. Its 111,000 customers receive water and sewer services, sewage removal or are municipal entities. “In short, we have, in all three cases, established the right people as far as I can tell, working on the right solutions. The PWSA does not want our customers to spend time on these issues. … So our goal is to get this marriage working as soon as we can possibly do that,”said Mr. Donahoe. He was named interim executive director March 3 after Jim Good abruptly resigned. Paul Leger, city Finance Department director and PWSA treasurer, said incorrect residential bills have decreased from 50 percent to about 3 percent, just above the industry standard of 2 percent. Councilwoman Deb Gross, who also sits on the PWSA board, said of the ongoing issues and 50,000 incorrect bills: “City council was not crazy. Our constituency was not crazy. There was a systematic problem, and that’s something we can take away from today: affirmation, and that you are working on it.”
Some Kirkwood residents are getting a shock when they open their sewer bills this month. The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District is charging a one-time fee to correct a billing error, jacking up bills several hundred dollars in some cases. Shonda Scott’s bill jumped up more than $400. “I was given a little notice from our neighbors,” said Scott, whose neighbors saw increases of $100- $200. “My blood pressure didn’t shoot up as high as it could have possibly been.” According to MSD spokesperson Lance LeComb, Scott and her neighbors are outliers, with the average customer owing the utility $6.50. “We’re certainly always very flexible in setting payment plans and we will work with those folks,” said LeComb. “But the bottom line is we did make a mistake, but we are billing for services that were rendered and delivered.” LeComb said letters warning customers of the fee were sent out last week to 6,500 Kirkwood residents and 800 businesses. For the past eight months those customers were under-billed due to a conversion error introduced by MSD when the city of Kirkwood put in new water meters. The meters measure water usage in gallons, while MSD measures water usage in one hundred cubic feet. Because MSD bills are based on water usage, Scott said she is confused that her bill is so much higher than her neighbors. “Our kids are moving out, we’re kind of empty nesting. And we don’t have a pool, we don’t have an irrigation system,” said Scott. “So I was surprised that ours is $400 higher compared to the $100 and $200 higher that our neighbors are experiencing.”