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3 ways to dispute utility bills, cable bills

That king-sized electric bill may be appropriate for a family of five, but no way is it right for just you and your spouse.

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Or, maybe your cable company is dunning you for a pay-per-view movie you never ordered.

Errors occur from time to time on utility bills and cable bills, and they're usually not in your favor. Sometimes, a quick call to the company can resolve the mishap simply. Other times, disputing a utility bill is not so easy.

Don't let a ridiculous charge send you into a fuming rage, venting your frustrations to the customer representative or screaming for a lawyer.

Resolving billing issues
If you stay calm and collected you can effectively dispute utility bills, solve the problems and maybe recruit some free help along the way.
3 ways to dispute utility bills
1. Start with the source.
2. Find an advocate.
3. Try national and federal organizations.

1. Start with the source.
Prepare before you contact the company. Have your current bill, past bills and any canceled checks in front of you. Make sure you have your account numbers and passwords if there are any. Have a notepad and pen handy because you'll want to make notes throughout the conversation and also get information about the customer service representative.

Figure out by how much you want to get the bill reduced, but be realistic about what you would accept for a settlement. Then, contact the company when it's least busy. Friday mornings are good times to call. Avoid Mondays and the days after holidays, since those times are the busiest.

Create the mood. Firm and aggressive presentations work as long as they are not combative. Tell the customer representative you have a problem with the bill that both of you need to review.

When you talk with the customer representative do the following:

Call at a different time if you have problems with the representative. Speak to the manager if disagreements persist.

Follow up the call with a letter to the company. The information collected during the phone call should be included in the note. Make sure you sign it.

Linda Mihatov of Layton, N.J., says she's won battles with utility companies by keeping thorough documentation to prove her points.

A few years ago, Mihatov got an "exceptionally" high summer electric bill. She says she checked the bill carefully and discovered it was an estimate, not an actual reading. The customer service representative couldn't explain why the meter didn't have an actual reading and speculated that something, such as dogs in the yard or landscaping, made the reading inaccessible.

"We requested the company send someone to read the meter within 24 hours and adjust our bill accordingly, citing our past usage as well as our prompt payment history."

She says her copies of the bill confirmed the inaccurate reading. The representative claimed she was unable to access that information, so Mihatov offered to fax the representative her copies.

She says the meter was read and her payment reduced.

"I followed up with a thank you to the company, sent along with payment, as one never knows when you're going to need to deal with problems again."

2. Find an advocate.
Recruit support if your calls to the utility company are not sufficient.

You can locate your state's public utilities commission, which oversees utility companies, or get help through the National Association of State Utility Advocates, or NASUCA. This organization represents the interest of utility consumers before state and federal regulators in court.

"At the commission you can have an informal investigation and if you are not satisfied you can file a formal complaint," says Janine L. Migden-Ostrander, Ohio Consumers' Counsel.

She explains that the commission informally investigates the dispute by contacting the company on your behalf. If the commission's answer is one that you don't like, you can file a formal complaint against the utility company. If the formal complaint doesn't make you happy, you can appeal the decision. At this point, she warns, courts of law, most likely a municipal court, are involved and a lawyer might be needed.

Some public service commissions address cable disputes. If not, Bob Johnson of Consumers for Cable Choice, a consumer advocacy group, says other alternatives exist.

Next: "The U.S. government can tackle some of your problems."
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