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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.

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.

3 ways to dispute utility bills

If you stay calm and collected you can effectively dispute utility bills, solve the problems and maybe recruit some free help along the way.

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  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:

  • Write down the date and time you talked with the person.
  • Ask for the person's name, identification number and extension before you begin to discuss the bill.
  • Ask if there's a case number, and jot it down.
  • Go through the bill line by line to determine the cause of the problem.
  • Ask what the expected turnaround will be for the resolution.
  • Write down any price quotes and/or charge adjustments. Ask the customer representative to do the same in the company's computer database.

Source: Delete this line if source is not needed.

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.

"Most consumers don't know this, but they can call their local franchising cable board. That's the agency that has the ability and authority to adjudicate public complaints," says Johnson.

Not all municipalities or towns have a cable board. So, try calling the clerk of the county or clerk of the city in your area to find out who is responsible for cable complaints.

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the information technology department has a direct link to Comcast as a franchise authority, says spokeswoman Diana Scott.

"We have a special line established," Scott says. "We get the person's information, we document it and that information is sent to a specific person at Comcast. Then Comcast contacts us with the resolution."

A visit to the attorney general's office may or may not help. The procedure for handling complaints varies with each office. Some offices, depending on the type of utility, might refer you to other state regulators, and others may attempt to mediate the dispute between you and the company themselves.

3. Try national and federal organizations.

Consumers can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, or BBB, a private nonprofit organization that monitors and reports marketplace activities to the public. The bureau sends the consumer's complaints to the company.

"If we have not heard from the company in 30 days, we close the case and suggest small claims court," says spokeswoman Sheila Adkins.

According to the BBB, it cannot force a reply from the company and it cannot administer sanctions. It can make a note of the company's unwillingness to respond in the company's reliability report that's provided to the public.

The U.S. government can tackle some of your problems.

Telecommunications issues can be handled by contacting the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC.

Consumers can file an informal complaint with the FCC and, if determined appropriate, the commission will send the complaint to the company or companies named. The FCC allows telephone companies only 45 days from receiving the complaint to respond to you and to provide a copy to the commission. The FCC reviews the response but doesn't issue a ruling or decision.

If the company's response doesn't satisfy you, you can make a formal complaint. This will involve hiring a lawyer and paying a complaint fee of $180. File this type of dispute within six months of receiving the response to the informal complaint.

Consumers can also contact the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, but the FTC's help depends on the circumstances. According to spokesman Mitch Katz, the FTC only gets involved if a charge the consumer did not authorize is placed on the bill.

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