Tuesday, August 21, 2012

National Grid customers beware!

I never paid much attention to my utility bills until I got my August natural gas bill for $3,101.03 from National Grid. What a shocker. I assumed that must be a mistake since my recent bills had been $108 a month. Digging into the roots of that ghastly bill revealed what a mess National Grid’s billing system is. Checking my available gas bills from February, 2012 to August, 2012 I discovered a pattern of errors that dismayed me and brings into question the integrity and competence of National Grid. I would have thought that when a consumer bill pops up as 28 times higher than previous bills either a computer or clerk would have realized something was wrong. To make this complex account easier to follow, I am numbering the incidents: 1. The April reading of my gas meter by the company was 7725 CCF (100 cubic feet), but two months later in June the reading recorded was 7657 CCF. How does the June reading drop to less than April’s. Either someone made a mistake or made up the numbers. 2. The August bill charging me $3,101.03 showed the “ACTUAL reading” of the meter on Aug. 2 to be 1940 CCF from which the June 4 “ACTUAL reading” of 7657 CCF was subtracted to arrive at 4283 CCF used. The numbers down add up or subtract, but I figure the margin of error is 10,000 (ten thousand)! How did that happen? A failed computer or an incompetent human being? 3. My June bill covering 122 days—from the depths of winter to spring—showed an average daily use of Therms (a measure of heat) to 1.7. While the August bill charging me $3,121.03 showed an average of 72.5 Therms a day for 59 days of summer—or about 42 times the average of winter and spring days. Hard to believe that massive surge could be missed by a competent computer system or clerk, whichever was responsible for processing the bill. 4. Sticking with June, I was sent two bills in June. The first on June 5, 2012 for $132.75 for gas. The second bill on June 8, 2012 for $119.70. The second bill shows actual usage. 5. After I received the Aug. 3, 2012 bill for $3,121.03, I called National Grid’s customer service office and surprisingly got a representative immediately. I anticipated, she would say “oh that must be a mistake.” Instead I had to identify myself through my account number, my name, my phone number, my address—and worst of all the last four digits of my social security number. Why in the world was that social security information demanded? I didn’t want to give her those four digits. She wouldn’t proceed with my complaint until I gave then to her. A meter reader was sent to my house a few days later to come up with the reading that would reduce my bill to $110.27. 6. The August bill reducing my payment was a list of numbers finagled to come out with the sum of $110.27. I paid it realizing it was the end game of a seriously questionable process. The only incident of residential billing worse than mine that I could find on Long Island in browsing the web and Newsday was the case of Sal and Ruth Mazzaro of Lynbrook who were overcharged $10,000 for gas during the span of 41 years because they were erroneously classified as commercial customers instead of residential. Arithmetic ($10,000 divided by 41 years by 12) shows about $20 a month was incorrectly added to the Mazzaro’s gas bill because of the utilities’ incorrect classification. Reflecting our corporate-centered society in which the consumer is a helpless pawn, the New York State Public Service Commission ruled that the utilities, National Grid and its predecessors, were without fault in the misclassification and that the Mazzaro’s should have caught the error by reading their bills. Oh yeah. Instead of getting the $10,000 back, the Mazzaro’s are entitled to only $420 for a year’s worth of overcharges, according to the Public Service Commission ruling. The PSC ruling means it is okay for companies to overcharge through carelessness, but consumers are punished for failing to realize and report the overcharge. How many times has this happened? Who pays a lawyer’s attention to their utility bill? I am sure that I and the Mazzaro’s are not alone in being overcharged. Who is looking out for the individual consumer? Is any agency doing check spot audits of National Grid’s billings? I don’t know, but one should be. Obviously, the State PSC is not oriented to protect consumers on Long Island or anywhere else. Caveat emptor.

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