Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Going to Hell In a Handbasket -- Episode Whatever


Just had a rough encounter with our electric company over a past due bill that we had no idea was past due.

They sent a somewhat stern email yesterday about bills unpaid and a balance due of $83.83, and I wondered WTF.  Total balance due: $142.69 including this month's bill. If not paid by suchandsuch a date next week, the Kill Switch will be thrown.

Uhhh. What happened here wondered I. We don't typically avoid paying utility bills. Something went awry at some point. So we go through all the bills received and notice that we haven't received one from the electric utility since March. Ah! That might be why it hasn't been paid, eh?

March, March. Why does that sound familiar? Ah yes, in March, through a miscommunication, we paid the electric bill twice, once by check and once online. And to pay online required setting up an online account. Of course.

So why hadn't we received bills since March?

Curious, I did an email search, and sure enough, there were billing reminder emails in May and June, but no indication in them that one would not receive any other notice or that one would have to pay online.

So I went back to their website, which required re-registering, since the user ID and password I'd used in March were totally forgotten. It was so complicated to register again -- much more complex than registering for online access to a bank account, say, and that takes some doing these days -- I see why I had forgotten the user ID and password.

Once in to the account online, I checked the bills, and sure enough there was March which showed a double credit for February and an $8.41 credit for March. There was April which applied the March credit to a $37.92 bill leaving a balance due of $29.51. There was May which showed a balance due of $54.32 plus the April unpaid balance for a total of $83.83. And there was June which showed an balance due of $58.42 plus a late charge of $.44 plus the previous unpaid balance of $83.83 for a total of $142.69. However, there was a billing summary table that showed completely different totals.

Hm. Well. How about that. We never received these bills, and I couldn't figure out why until I saw a little note under the account name: "Thank you for signing up for paperless billing."

But we never did. There was no intent to do so at all. The only reason for accessing the account online was to be able to pay the bill online when necessary not to forgo paper bills.

Sure enough, when I looked at the "Paperless billing options" on the menu, there was a checkmark for the "Paperless billing only" selection -- which selection I had never made as I had never even been to that section of their website before. It seemed to me that like Wells Fargo, accessing the website at all was sufficient to change billing to paperless.

So I checked around and found another place on the website where one could choose "email and paper bills sent monthly" -- which I did.

And then I attempted to pay the bill online. Which took a surprisingly long time to accomplish because of the difficulty of setting up a one time payment account. I had to do it three times before I was actually successful. The problem was that after the account was set up, there were no instructions regarding what to do from that point, and I kept getting bounced back to the setup sequence. After the third try, I went back a little farther and found a payment button, and sure enough, it got me to another page where I could choose from which account, and thence to an actual pay now screen.

 Since I'm not a total novice at these things -- we pay practically everything online as it is -- the frustrations of this site struck me as being due to extraordinarily poor design combined with an absolute obsession with website hyper-security which struck me a more than a little misplaced. It's a utility company, actually a public utility company, not a corporate one. This is not a national security issue. It's an electric bill.

At any rate, I paid the bill and checked again on the billing options and found the account was STILL set at "paperless." By this time I was becoming enraged, not that it does any good. I went back to the menu and reselected "email and paper bills monthly". Would it take this time? Who knew? I decided to log out and check again today.

Today came, and at about 11am there was a threatening letter in the mail from the utility. "Pay up or else. Immediately. We'll cut your electricity off if you don't pay, we'll charge you an arm and a leg to reconnect your lousy delinquent ass. If you have already paid, call our customer service line and let them know."

So I did.

What a mistake.

First, I checked the credit union, and sure enough, the $142.69 that I'd paid online yesterday had been deducted from our account.

When I called, I listened to the menu of options and chose "check balance"; it showed $83.83 past due and $58.42 due for June. In order to get to a customer service rep, I had to wade through a series of other options.

The person who answered the phone (after a short wait) at first refused to talk to me at all because the account isn't in my name. So? I had paid the bill, and I wanted to be sure that it was accounted for in their records.

No, there was still a past due amount he said. He asked when I paid it and when was it deducted from my account. I told him it was paid yesterday as soon after I found out what had happened as possible and it was deducted today.  "Oh," he said, "it won't show up on our records for another four or five days. We have to make sure the payment clears."

Uh. The payment "cleared" as soon as it was made, I informed him. If it didn't "clear" it would have been rejected by the credit union. They will not pay in the case of overlimit charges or insufficient funds. In other words, I would not have been able to make the payment online at all if it didn't "clear." And the full amount of the payment has been deducted from our credit union account as of today. Ergo, it should be reflected in the utility's records right now.

"No," he said, "our policy is to post online payments four to five days after they are made." I said, "That means that you won't show a payment has been made till after your deadline for disconnection."

"I can make a note that your payment has been made as of June 19th; that will be sufficient to avoid disconnection," he said.

Oh goody, thought I. (How much longer are we going to be at this address anyway? Counting down the days...)

Then I told him that this happened because apparently the account was put on paperless billing simply by accessing the website. And because we weren't getting bills, we didn't even realize that they were going unpaid. There's nothing in the reminder emails that says the bill must now be paid online only.

Yes, he says, he's heard that from a number of customers, and he would make a note of it. I said it was also very difficult to use the website and that even when I selected "email and paper bills" I was still informed that the account was on "paperless."

He would make sure that IT knew that customers were not happy with this situation, but he could not discuss the account with me any more because I was not listed on it.


How sad.

I was just getting started.

But it was tiresome and I had other things to take care of. I wished him "Good day," and hung up.

Ordinarily, we don't have to deal with the utility companies at all, which is nice. The few times I've had to deal with ATT (once to get rid of their wildly overpriced cell phone service, and once recently to see if there was something wrong with the phone line again -- much static and slow broadband)  it was a nightmare. It was a long struggle to get them to cancel the cell phone service, as they kept wanting to sell me on keeping it, and I didn't want to. For one thing, it was too expensive, and the cost kept going up month after month, and their service was crappy. I couldn't use the phone inside the house, and there were all kinds of deadspots and no service areas on the routes I traveled. Yadda, yadda.

As for the static on the line, after calling for service, and setting an appointment for someone to come out, I got a call from a really snotty CS Rep who said no one was going to come out, the problem was my crappy old equipment not their lines, and that was that. Oh. Well. Thanks for helping. What are we paying for again?

Yes, well. These stories of dismal corporate and public sector customer service can be repeated endlessly because that's the way it is these days.

Institutional failure pretty much assures these results.


  1. Hmm, yes, this kind of stuff happens. For example, I'm with Bank of America. If you pay a bill, it defaults to sending the payment on the day its due. If that day is on the weekend, the payment won't be registered on the computer until Monday. So, if you view the account over the weekend it will show a delinquent charge. Even though all you did was click through to do the payment on time, as it is defaulted to do.

    My advice? If you can afford it pay all bills one week early. I usually do them a couple of days early, or time them to go out with my paycheck well in advance of the due date. (Also check online to make sure the bill is actually paid well before the due date.)

  2. I actually gave up on BofA because of little tricks like that. They were charging late charges on payments made on time because they would not post credits on weekends -- or even after five EST on week days; if your due date fell on a weekend, and you paid it (or like I did, scheduled payment) on the due date, you were dinged $35 "late charge." Of course they would reverse the charge if you complained, but they figured most people they were doing this to wouldn't notice and I bet they were right.

    In the case of the electric bill, we literally had no thought about not receiving bills in the mail and had not noticed they weren't coming any more. We never signed up for paperless billing, it was an unannounced feature (not a bug!) of accessing the account online. And yes, they acknowledge they get many complaints about it. Wells Fargo used to do the same thing, access online and you were automatically signed up for paperless billing. They don't do it any more, though. Wonder why...

  3. I'm basically stuck with BoA until I inevitably go bankrupt. Then it's slip out of the country and disappear, I guess. I hear Cambodia's... well, not nice exactly... interesting though.

    Yes, I'm aware of tricks like that. Since I have a tedious job with almost no supervision that sticks me in front of a computer 9 hours a day, I just obsessively check all my online billing sites several times a day every day.