Generally, utility companies are fair and your bill won’t come as a shock – but mistakes happen. Your meter might have been read incorrectly, a number was transposed due to a clerical error, or maybe your meter is no longer accurate. If you receive an electric bill that seems wildly exorbitant, you can dispute the excess amount. While the company is reviewing your claim, you typically aren’t expected to pay the disputed amount.
Read your bill carefully.
Before you call the utility company, read the bill to make sure you understand it.
Speak to a utility company customer service representative.
Get information together such as your account number and previous bills, and then call the utility company.
Before you call, make sure you have all the information you’ll need, including your current bill, past bills, and any canceled checks or bank statements showing payments.
It might help to call the company when they are least busy, such as on a Friday morning. In contrast, Mondays and the days after holidays typically are the most busy.
When you reach a representative, write down his name and the date and time you called for your records. Take notes during the conversation.
State that you are disputing your bill.
Generally you won’t be at risk for having your utilities shut off if you formally dispute the bill and pay any undisputed amount.
For example, your utilities cannot be shut off in Missouri if you legitimately dispute charges either in writing, in person, or on the telephone within 24 hours prior to the date listed on your shut-off notice.
However, the dispute must be legitimate. A frivolous dispute won’t stop a shut-off.
Chicago’s Citizens Utility Board notes that you can’t be disconnected for nonpayment if you pay either the undisputed portion of your bill or an amount equal to last year’s bill for the same month.
Typically your bill won’t be considered as in dispute until you call or visit the utility company and specifically tell them that you are disputing your bill.
Request a meter reading.
If your bill was an estimate rather than based on a direct reading, you can request a reading.
If your meter was inaccessible, perhaps because of landscaping or large dogs, the company may provide an estimate rather than an actual reading.
If the estimate seems too high, you can ask the company to return and do an actual meter reading.
Keep in mind that you are still responsible for paying your bill, regardless of whether it’s estimated or actual. Even if you’ve disputed part of it, you can’t expect not to pay anything for an entire billing cycle.
When the utility company completes the actual reading, which you can be present to observe, you will be responsible for the updated amount. If you still believe the amount is too much, you can request an accuracy test.
Request a meter accuracy test.
If your bill was based on a direct reading, you can ask the utility company to test the meter and make sure it’s functioning properly.
In most states, the utility company is required by law to complete an accuracy test if you request one. For example, Maryland’s regulatory code requires companies provide accuracy tests for customers upon request at no charge, and also states that you or your representative may be present during the test.
If it turns out your meter was inaccurate, you can negotiate an amount with the utility company. Typically, this amount will be equal to your bill for the same month last year. If you haven’t been a customer for that long, the utility company may negotiate an average amount for you to pay based on the accuracy adjustment that was made.
Follow up every phone call with a written letter to the company.
Send a letter to the company confirming what you were told by the representative and the steps that will be taken.
Make sure you sign and date your letter before you mail it.
Make copies of your letters so you have them for your records.
Pay the undisputed part of the bill.
While the dispute is going on, you must continue to pay at least part of your bill.
For example, if you are disputing a $200 bill in April, because your bill was only $50 in March and you believe your bill should have been about that much in April, you must pay the March bill, $50 for April, and any bills following while the dispute is being resolved.
If you don’t pay bills that are undisputed, the company can still cut off your electricity, even while you have a pending dispute.
Cooperate in resolving the dispute.
Be willing to supply any additional information the utility company needs to get to the bottom of the situation.
Contact your state’s public utilities commission.
Each state has a public utilities commission that is responsible for regulating and monitoring the performance of the state’s utility companies.
Typically the commission will make an informal investigation. If you aren’t satisfied with the outcome of the investigation, you can file a formal complaint.
The commission may conduct further tests to verify the meter’s accuracy. For example, the Maryland Public Service Commission’s Engineering Division can run what’s known as a referee test. A Commission representative and a utility representative test your meter together.
Work with an advocate from the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.
NASUCA provides professional consumer advocates to help you investigate and resolve a utility complaint.
NASUCA advocates also represent the interest of utility consumers in court and before state and federal utility regulators.
There are NASUCA consumer advocates in 40 different states, designated by the laws of their respective jurisdictions. In 12 states the state attorneys general take on this role, while in the other 29 states office directors are appointed by the governor.
File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
If you experienced poor customer service or a lack of concern for your problem, you can file a former complaint with the BBB.
The BBB can’t force the company to reply or to resolve your issue, and it can’t place any sanctions on the company, but it can make the issue public.
If the company doesn’t respond to the BBB for more than 30 days, the bureau typically recommends the customer go to small claims court.
Find the appropriate form.
Most states have claim forms you can fill out to open a claim in small claims court.
Small claims courts are simple and inexpensive, and are designed for you to have a judge hear a small claim without needing an attorney or extensive knowledge of legal procedures.
You must have the full business name and appropriate address for the utility company to fill out this form.
Each state has maximum limits for the amount of money your claim is worth, usually a few thousand dollars. In most cases your utility dispute probably would fall under that limit.
Gather your information.
Some small claims courts require you to include documents such as past utility bills as exhibits to your claim.
Complete your claim forms.
Include all required information on your claim form and sign it in the presence of a notary, if required.
File your claim.
To have your claim heard by a judge you must file it with the clerk of the small claims court in your county.
Typically you will have to pay a small fee to file your claim. For example, in New York the court fee is $15-20.
The clerk will assign a date for your trial.
Serve the utility company.
After you’ve filed your claim, you must have the utility company served so it has notice of the lawsuit.
In some states, such as New York, the clerk will serve the utility company for you. If you have to do it yourself you can have the sheriff’s department do it for a small fee, or send the documents using certified mail.
Prepare for trial.
Organize any documents you have and request information from the utility company to build your case.
Documentation you’ll want to bring with you to your trial might include copies of your bills, copies of bank statements or cancelled checks, and payment confirmation pages if you paid your bill online.
You also should gather together any notes you made from phone calls with representatives and letters you sent to follow up on those calls.
Make several copies of each document you’re taking to trial with you so you can provide the judge and the utility company representative with their own copies.
You also may arrange for witnesses to testify at trial on your behalf.
Appear at trial.
Show up at the date and time for your trial to present your claim to the judge.
Try to arrive at least 15 minutes early so you can get through security and find the right courtroom.
Since it is your claim, you will have the opportunity to speak first. Present your claim clearly and concisely, and don’t interrupt anyone else when they’re speaking.
Dress in clean, conservative clothing and be professional and considerate to the judge and all other court staff.
Make sure your documents are well organized so you can find what you need quickly without shuffling a lot of papers. Anticipate the questions you’ll be asked and have answers prepared.