Sunday, March 4, 2012

Why I don't use automatic bill pay

Every so often, a company I do business with will try to sell me on the convenience of automatic bill payment. Just sign up for their service, they promise, and whenever your bill comes due, the money will come right out of your checking account, automatically, with no need for you to worry your pretty little head about it. Not surprisingly, these offers don't appeal to me, because I like to maintain as much control over my money as possible. I want to know exactly how much a bill is going to be before I pay it, for three good reasons:
  1. to make sure there's enough money in checking to cover it, so that I won't be stuck with an overdraft fee;
  2. to make sure the bill itself is accurate; and
  3. so that I won't forget to look over my bills and take note of any expenses that I need to rein in for the future.
Admittedly, reason 2 has sometimes struck me as a little bit paranoid. Okay, it's a good idea for my credit card bills, since I have found inaccurate charges on them once or twice that I wanted to dispute—but what are the odds that my phone bill or utility bill is going to be wrong?

Well, I just got an answer to that question. My utility bill for the month of February, which arrived on the 23rd, was about $200 higher than I expected it to be. This is a combined bill, with separate charges for natural gas and electricity. The gas portion of the bill looked fine; our gas usage for February was roughly the same as it had been in January, and actually a good bit lower than it had been in February of 2011. But the electric portion showed total usage of 1165 kilowatt-hours—more than five times as much as we'd used in January, or, for that matter, any other month in the past year.

At first, I was flummoxed. I tried to think of what could possibly have increased our power usage that much—the new grow light for our seeds? The electric space heater we ran a couple of times while working in the basement? But after a moment's reflection, it occurred to me that perhaps the meter reading was just wrong. I went out and checked the electric meter, and I found that the reading as of that date, February 23, was 61944, and the reading listed on our bill, dated February 16, was 62902. At that point, it was obvious what had happened: the second dial was right on the line between 1 and 2, and the meter reader accidentally read it as a 2 when it should have been a 1. A simple mistake, and one that should be easy to fix, right?

Well, you would think so. I called up PSE&G and explained the situation, and they said, no problem: just give me the actual reading you took yourself, and we'll send you out a new bill with that reading in place of the one we used. So I said fine, gave them my reading, and hung up, thinking that the matter was now taken care of. Ha ha, silly me. My new bill arrived on the 25th, and the electric meter reading on it was...62902, exactly the same as on the first bill. The only change they'd actually made was to remove the charge for "clean energy certificates" that we normally pay.

So I called PSE&G again and explained the situation once more, adding that my previous call hadn't fixed the problem. They said they couldn't understand why, but they promised to send out a new bill with my meter reading from the 23rd, and they assured me that this time the change really would be made. Well, you can probably guess what happened: a new bill arrived on the 29th, and the total was exactly the same as on the second bill. I checked the electric section, and sure enough, the meter reading was still 62902.

Okay, I thought, maybe the third time's the charm. I called them once more and told them that I had now received three inaccurate bills in a row, and they once more expressed puzzlement and promised to send out a new bill using my meter reading. I asked them to please double-check and confirm that the number listed for the meter reading was now 61944, and they assured me that yes, it really was. I hung up the phone still feeling skeptical and decided that if I got a fourth bill and the reading was still wrong, I'd go down to the nearest PSE&G office in person and see if I could fix it that way.

The new bill arrived today, and I was pleased to see that it was indeed much lower than the first three. But just to make sure, I flipped to the electric section to make sure they really had used my reading from the 23rd. Well, they hadn't; instead they'd given me an "estimated reading" of 61879. Still, that wouldn't have been a problem by itself; it was pretty close, and any discrepancy would be corrected when they took the reading for March. But then I looked at the next line and I saw that instead of the actual reading from the previous bill in January, they'd inserted the actual reading from November: 61400. So now, though they'd corrected the reading for February, they were attempting to re-bill us for two months' worth of electricity usage that we'd already paid for!

This story doesn't have an ending yet, as PSE&G has neither office hours nor a phone line available on Sundays. At this point, my plan is to go down to their office tomorrow, armed with hard copies of the four inaccurate bills I've received so far, as well as my bill from January (so that I can prove a reading actually was taken that month) and a photo of my electric meter as of today (reading: 62000). Then I plan to lay out the story in full detail and refuse to leave until they give me, in my hand, an accurate bill for February, with both the correct February reading and the January reading. At that point I will hand them, in return, a check for the actual amount I owe, and that, I sincerely hope, will be that.

And if they ever try again to talk me into paying my bill automatically, I will not hesitate to tell them exactly why I don't think that's a good idea.
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