Recently, a woman named Versie Cuthbert called me, desperate for help, saying a major ding on her credit report had almost ruined her chances of getting approved for a home loan. A negative report from Cuthbert’s former electric provider, TXU Energy, had lowered her credit score significantly.
After doing some research, I discovered Cuthbert had switched electricity providers because she felt TXU had unfairly billed her for electricity she didn’t use. It was easy to understand why she felt this way, considering that she had received a $3800 electric bill for just one month of electricity in her 2-bedroom townhome where she lives alone.
“I was like, ‘No way, no way,’” said Versie Cuthert, explaining her reaction to the $3800 bill. “Something is wrong. This is not right,” Cuthbert told me.
When a very concerned Cuthbert called TXU, she said multiple employees only pressed her to set up a payment plan until they could figure out what went wrong. Realizing she owed something, but far less than the $3800 she was billed, Cuthbert did send monthly payments, but she refused to agree to a payment plan on the erroneous bill.
Cuthbert asked CenterPoint Energy, the company that owns and reads the meters, for a re-read, hoping to find out what she actually owed. Unfortunately, CenterPoint continued to provide inaccurate meter readings for Cuthbert’s account to TXU for several consecutive months.
“Clearly, that error should not have happened,” CenterPoint spokeswoman Alicia Dixon told me. “And it took us too long to discover that error, quite honestly.”
Dixon told us Cuthbert’s meter wasn’t only read wrong once. It provided incorrect information six months in a row. Retail electric providers like TXU can only bill customers based on the meter information CenterPoint provides.
After six months without any explanation from TXU or CenterPoint, then a series of threatening disconnection notices from TXU when she wouldn’t make payments on the erroneous $3800 bill, Cuthbert switched to Reliant.
“I got tired of the threats,” said Cuthbert. “I wasn’t coming to [any] resolution. And I was just tired.”
Just days after she switched, TXU finally received a corrected reading from CenterPoint. It showed that Cuthbert’s meter was read too high at one point. In subsequent months, it was read too low. When it added up the total amount of electricity Cuthbert had used over the six-month time period that had elapsed while she was waiting for a corrected bill, TXU determined that Cuthbert had used all of the kilowatts she was originally charged for. Since Cuthbert was no longer a customer, TXU had no way to disconnect her electricity. Instead, it reported the unpaid balance of the $3800 bill to the credit bureaus.
“My chances of getting a home are very slim,” she told me.
Surprisingly, I received two other emails almost identical to Cuthbert’s. When customers who had received abnormally high electric bills couldn’t get their electric providers to adjust their bills, they just switched companies, only to later get dinged for the original disputed charge on their credit reports.
What Should You Do?
Unfortunately, when Cuthbert called me months after the first bad meter reading, her time to file a complaint with the Public Utility Commission and receive help had passed. If you get an electric bill you think is wrong, you must call your electric company and the PUC before the bill is due. Once you’ve filed that complaint, you do not have to pay the bill until after the PUC investigates your case. The commission has 21 days to help resolve any complaint that is sent to it.
“If a complaint is filed with the PUC, we can work on it fast,” PUC spokesman Terry Hadley told me. But Hadley said no one called the Commission about Cuthbert’s case.
Filing a complaint also helps the state agency track patterns and trends. If it notices a large number of cases where CenterPoint is passing along inaccurate meter readings, it can investigate and even penalize the company for the financial burden it may have placed on homeowners.
Click here for instructions for filing a complaint with the PUC or call 1-888-782-8477.