Credit Cards and Consumer Debt
Re: TXU Energy has Big Bills

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By WonderPup
February 23, 2006

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I saw this on the "best of" and it piqued my interest. My personal background includes 6 years building billing systems for utility companies, and my specialty was field operations, which included credit and collections, and by extension, included issues such as disputed bills. My business client teams always included at least 1 person whose full-time job was to work in the customer call center. And though I never served a client in Texas, I have served clients in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois--which means that I know that although the specific rules differ from state to state, there are general trends, and I'm used to reading PUC material.

So, there are my credentials, since I am not a regular poster here. Now for my feedback to your situation:

Ok, you think this is an honest mistake, yes? Try again.
Nope, it's TXU Energy that's attempting to perpetrate fraud.

Odds are, your name got automatically matched in some batch computer process. No one sat down one day and started scheming about how they could get you. That's not to say that the follow-up to your situation has been proper, but I'd bet good money that all of this really did originate as nothing other than an automated process.

Keep this in mind, because I'll come back to it later.

In my mind, TXU's demands are particular egregious because they should have suspected that we were divorced, since she had another person listed on her own account as her husband.

No one is sitting down going through the database of customer names guessing what the marital status is. Even so, if I follow this correctly, she opened her new account in a different name than the one she used while married to you. Even if someone did happen to look at the account, why would they draw that sort of conclusion? Also, the fact that the names are different means absolutely nothing--maybe the new account is a joint business venture... or she's acting as a 3rd party guarantor for a sick relative... or she's a landlord with primary responsibility for the bill but puts a tenant's name as a secondary for record keeping purposes. I could probably whip out another dozen realistic scenarios that would have someone put another name on an account that would have nothing to do with divorce--and they could too. So don't expect them to guess what's going on in your life based on the names on a bill.

The CSR's only explanation was that they tied it to my account because my account had been notated showing that we were married.
As you and I know, debts are individual obligations unless explicitly agreed. I have never agreed to assume my XSO's individual debts and I certainly would not do so after a divorce.

I refer you to Chapter 25, Subchapter R, Section 25.471.d.3:

Customer � A person who is currently receiving retail electric service from a REP in the person's own name or the name of the person's spouse, or the name of an authorized representative of a partnership, corporation, or other legal entity, including a person who is changing premises but is not changing their REP.

Congratulations! By the laws of the great State of Texas, you are indeed a customer of your utility company, since you were receiving electric service, even if it was billed in your spouse's name at the time. Before you protest and go off citing debt laws and such, just hold the thought for a moment. As with the previous topic, I'll come back to this point in a bit.

Today, TXU received a nasty reply letter faxed from me ...
That's fraud and extortion pure and simple ...
In the end I told him that if he didn't "get to it" before it showed up on my bill, I would be retaining counsel and we would very likely see each other in court ...

With such a friendly customer to deal with, I'm sure they were just jumping up and down competing for the opportunity to deal with you.

Here's reality: CSRs don't make a whole lot more money than the average fast food worker. They answer the phone all day long, and at best, they get to deal with a bunch of indifferent people. At worst, they get yelled at for stuff they had no responsibility for in the first place. For the money they get, they deal with a lot more hassle and abuse than a lot of people are willing to put up with.

Here's another reality: Go ahead and file suit. It isn't going to be the CSR sitting in court--and the CSR knows that. Threats are absolutely hollow to them, and they couldn't care less about all the stuff you're going to threaten to do because even if you do it, they're still going to be answering the phone tomorrow while the company throws their lawyers at you.

OK, so I've been pretty direct so far, but the point I'm trying to make is that the approach you've taken is pretty much guaranteed to end up making you miserable. And trust me--they can make it much worse for you. Though they shouldn't do it, they just might "accidentally" come out and turn off your power for non-payment some day--or, frankly, it may not be an accident if you don't follow the right processes--it might be perfectly legal, depending on the subtleties of Texas law.

Since I'd like to offer suggestions instead of criticism, here is what I suggest, as someone who has seen the system at work:

1) Call the customer contact center. Be nice to the CSR. And not just merely courteous and polite--I mean be really, really nice. Start with a "Hi, how are you doing?" When the CSR says his name, remember it--or ask for it if he didn't offer it. And use his name--not in a condescending way by overusing it, but make it clear that you're treating him as a person. You might be the only person to do that all day, and you'll get way better attention for it. So, start off with something like "Hi, Bob. Well, here's why I'm calling--I've been having some problems with my bill, and I haven't been able to get it worked out yet when I've called before. I'm really hoping that you can help me work this out...." To recall the first point above: Some computer started this problem, not a person, and certainly not the specific person you're talking to. Joke around about "those darn computers" if you want, but the CSR is NOT the cause of your problem--merely the solution.

2) Which leads to the next point: Remember that the CSR is in the position of power--not you. Sure, if you decide to press the issue to the PUC, you might just win--after months of hassle, legal bills, writing letters and making calls, and the building stress. But that doesn't factor into the CSR's equation--if you win, they don't lose.

Your goal is to settle this right here, right now, and the person who can do that for you is the CSR--not your lawyers, not the PUC. And that means the CSR has the power in this conversation, not you.

That means that not only do you need to stay friendly, but you need to encourage the CSR by continuing to call out how helpful and useful they are for you--so that they want to do more of it.

3) If it gets to the point where the CSR can't address your issue--and there's a very, very real chance that they don't have the authority to do so (and it isn't their fault if they don't!)--then you need to escalate to the CSR's supervisor.

Again, this isn't an angry: "Let me talk to your boss!!" sort of snapping remark. That will get you nowhere--because the CSR will go get their boss and say "I have a real pain in the butt here"--you do realize the CSR is going to talk about you and how you've acted when he gets the boss, right?--and the boss is going to be more interested in getting you off the phone so that the CSR and the boss can get back to customers they CAN help.

So, when the CSR says, "I'm not authorized to change that", your response is something like "Bob, I really appreciate all the help you're giving me here. I realize I'm asking you for something that you're not allowed to do. Is there a supervisor around that I could talk to that could help me?"

And now the CSR finds the boss and says "There's a guy here that I just can't help--can you give us a hand?" and the boss may actually start the conversation on a good tone.

4) Rinse and repeat until you get to someone that appears to have the authority to help you. This may mean a transfer to a second boss--many call centers have at least two levels of supervisors on shift. Keep calm, and keep being nice until they find someone to help you.

5) If by this point, they haven't actually fixed it and there's no more escalation to be had, then you need to shift to self-defense. The first thing you need to do is officially request that the charge be marked as a disputed charge in their system. This is important for many reasons--disputed charges are not allowed to be reported to credit agencies. Disputed charges are not allowed to be considered for shutting off service for non-payment. Disputed charges also officially flag this for the supervisory review process that is mandated by the Texas PUC.

Without doing this, you risk the chance of them reporting it to the agency, cutting off your power, and getting nowhere with the PUC. Think of this as the difference between formally asking a telemarketer to place you on their "do not call" list versus just yelling "quit calling me... I never want to hear from you again!" The first starts an official process. The second requires no action on their part.

Remember--in the eyes of Texas law, there may be a case to build against you as being a legally responsible customer. Yelling at them without formally initiating the disputed charge process isn't going to get you anywhere, and they'll act accordingly. Their computer systems will kick you out into the collections process some day and they'll shut your power off.

The PUC rule you want is here:
Chapter 25, Subchapter R, Section 25.480.g:

Disputed bills. If there is a dispute between a customer and a REP about the REP's bill for any service billed on the retail electric bill, the REP shall promptly investigate and report the results to the customer. The REP shall inform the customer of the complaint procedures of the commission pursuant to �25.485 of this title (relating to Customer Access and Complaint Handling).

(REP = Retail Energy Provider... i.e., the utility company)

The section 485 that's mentioned is here:

Complaints to REPs or aggregators. A customer or applicant for service may submit a complaint in person, or by letter, facsimile transmission, e-mail, or by telephone to a REP or aggregator. The REP or aggregator shall promptly investigate and advise the complainant of the results within 21 days. A customer who is dissatisfied with the REP's or aggregator's review shall be informed of the right to file a complaint with the REP's or aggregator's supervisory review process, if available, and, if not available, with the commission and the Office of Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division. Any supervisory review conducted by the REP or aggregator shall result in a decision communicated to the complainant within ten business days of the request. If the REP or aggregator does not respond to the customer's complaint in writing, the REP or aggregator shall orally inform the customer of the ability to obtain the REP's or aggregator's response in writing upon request.

After you have them mark this as a disputed charge, they've got a couple weeks to look into it--so realize that it may not be done for you immediately. (That said, I would call back every couple of days at first, and eventually each day, to follow up--but not call them all day right away when they haven't had a chance to look at it.)

(e) Complaints to the commission.
(1) Informal complaints.
(A) If a complainant is dissatisfied with the results of a REP's or aggregator's complaint investigation or supervisory review, the REP or aggregator shall advise the complainant of the commission's informal complaint resolution process and the following contact information for the commission:

A subtlety here, but technically, the PUC could respond to you by saying "have you formally addressed this with your utility yet?" and depending upon how you look at it, the answer could be considered "no" (since you've called them but they haven't had time to formally investigate).

That said, I agree in this case it is a good idea to make an initial contact with the PUC (providing all information they ask for in section 485.e.1.b), because of the following rule (485.e.2):

While an informal complaint process is pending:
(A) The REP or aggregator shall not initiate collection activities, including termination or disconnection of service (as appropriate) or report the customer's delinquency to a credit reporting agency with respect to the disputed portion of the bill.
(B) A customer shall be obligated to pay any undisputed portion of the bill and the REP may pursue termination or disconnection of service (as appropriate) for nonpayment of the undisputed portion after appropriate notice.

Though most states and utilities consider filing a disputed charge with the utility to be adequate proof of starting the complaint process, in this case, it does sound like it would be safe to include the PUC as well.

If it comes to that, politely state to the utility that you'll be starting the informal dispute process with the PUC as required by law so that you can keep your account out of collections. Ask the utility to place you on that list--don't just write the PUC and assume that will be enough, because by the time the info gets all the way through the bureaucracy, you may have been living in a dark house for a couple of weeks.

Anyway, this is a really long response, but I hope it helped. It all boils down to this: you do NOT want to depend on resolving this through the legal system. That will be long, drawn out, stressful, annoying, expensive, and you may even lose the case--I could probably build a decent case against you, and I'm darn sure that the utility companies lawyers could build one, too. It isn't worth joining the fight if the victory ends up being a pyrrhic victory.

So, to tie back to one of the points way above, quit worrying about arguing about this debt law or that utility law right now--worry about getting the person who answers your phone call to fix your problem before involving any lawyers at all.

Your goal is to call the contact center and get it resolved right there, right then. Remember that the CSR is your god on this phone call--there's nothing you can threaten to do to them that will scare them, but all they have to do is say no to you, hang up, and put a note on your customer record stating that you called and were angry, and the next time you call in that CSR is going to see the note, too. The CSR has the power and authority in this transaction. Act like it and respect that authority and make them want to use it for you.

Treat the call as a partnership and escalate until you can find someone with the authority to help you. And if all else fails, be sure to *formally* start the disputed charge process with them and then work within that system.

Good night,

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