It started, as is so frequently the case, with letters from consumers. People wanted to know how come their electric or gas bill stayed the same even though they were on vacation that month or two in the summer or winter. Others found their water bill staggeringly higher even though their water usage was the same as before. We all have heard about odometer rollbacks by used car dealers which costs unsuspecting consumers an estimated $2 billion a year, according to the federal government.
Does the meter lie? Can the meter be mistaken? Given the history of the proverbial merchant’s thumb on the scale, why should we give the benefit of the doubt to today’s sophisticated version of that which measures your bills? We went to work and now have released a report entitled “Of Meters and Misfeasance: What you should know about Utility metering and billing errors.”
We collected a number of cases which illustrate the range of meter problems and questions. Alan Morrison is a public interest lawyer in Washington, D.C. For years he was accustomed to receiving water bills every six months amounting to $50 or $60. When he left town for an extended period, he expected to receive a much lower water bill. Instead, he got one for $337. The Water Department representative told him that was the meter measurements and that is that. “Are you taking in laundry?” Morrison was asked.
Georgia Clay’s low income required her to enter a budget plan for gas service with Peoples Gas Light & Coke Company. Her payments amounted to $45.00 per month. However, when the company discovered that two other tenants “tapped” into Mrs. Clay’s gas line without her knowing it, the company presented her with a bill for $1,350.
A small Washington business office was shocked by the telephone bill’s total message units for that month. The phone company stood firm. The Public Utilities Commission admitted that it had no device to check for meter error in such an instance.
Consumers are often told by utility companies that their meters “always slow down; they never speed up.” Our report showed that meters do speed up and that other kinds of billing errors result in overcharges to customers. In fact, a large percentage of gas meters run fast after eight or nine years in service. But, some meters have not been tested or adjusted in over 30 years.
The state utility commissions are charged with the responsibility for ensuring that gas companies maintain the accuracy of residential gas meters. Meeting this obligation varies from the nominal to the mediocre. In the District of Columbia, the regulatory commission does not perform any tests of these meters itself. It does not insist that the gas company provide test records which would reveal whether gas meters have been accurate during operation at the customer’s residence.
New problems are being disclosed in the telephone metering area. Some long distance phone companies were caught using equipment that measures the time you spend on a long distance call but “rounds” this time to the nearest full minute. For example, for a 9 minute and 2 second call you may be billed for 10 minutes. In a hotel recently I noticed a label on the room telephone informing guests that if they dial long distance more than seven rings without an answer, a charge will be incurred nonetheless.
Some utilities which test their meters summarize the results in a way that conceals accuracies. One gas company underreports the number of fast meters it discovers each year by “rounding” test results to lower (smaller) numbers. More and more businesses are hiring special consultants to check their utility bills’ accuracy. They are saving much more than the money needed to pay their consultants’ fees.
For millions of consumers, meter fraud, inaccuracy, or mistaken meter billing practices can amount to billions of dollars. It is time for people to know more about meter fallibility, what regulatory agencies should do and what consumers can do to prevent the overbilling or recover excessive payments. These issues will be discussed in next week’s column.