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The first year I lived in Florida, I was amused by the temperatures that Floridians considered “cold” in winter. But I wasn’t laughing when I got my first January electric bill and discovered just how much it costs to heat a Florida home in the winter. More recently, a leak in the pump of our in-ground pool left me with a water bill three times the normal amount. While that bill put a dent in our budget, I was fortunate that I was able to handle it. But I know that’s not always easy if you’re on limited income, or on a fixed income due to retirement or disability.

What happens if you run into problems with a utility bill? What are your rights?

To get answers to some of the most common problems facing customers, I spent time talking with Charlie Harak, managing attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.  He’s also the coauthor of The National Consumer Law Center Guide to The Right of Utility Consumers.

Harak says the first thing to understand is that most consumer protections apply only to gas and electric services. “Water is usually provided by a government provider (municipal and rural electric co-op) which is far less regulated,” he said. Similarly, propane or heating oil that is delivered is typically not regulated.  Furthermore, he says there are no federal laws that specifically address the rights of utility customers. Those rights fall under state laws.

As the NCLC guide explains, gas and electric service is typically regulated by state Public Utility Commissions (PUCs). Services may be provided by Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs), government-owned entities (munis), or rural electric cooperatives (co-ops). Among the three, IOUs are often the most highly regulated.

With that background in mind, here are five common utility bill problems, and what you can do about them.

Isn’t there a statute of limitations for very old utility bill debts?

Yes, the statute of limitations may prevent a utility company, or debt collector who purchased one of these old debts, from successfully suing you to collect. That time period is based on state law, and will typically be “the same as the statute of limitations for contract actions,” says Harak. However, it’s not a good idea to ignore calls or letters about an old debt. If the company or collector takes you to court and you don’t show up to raise the statute of limitations as a defense, they may get a default judgment against you. (You can check your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com for judgments or collection accounts resulting from utility bills, and you can see how those may be affecting your credit scores every month for free on Credit.com.)

Third-party debt collectors who collect consumer debts (including utility bills) are regulated under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Anytime a debt collector contacts you about a debt you have the right to receive a debt collection notice by mail (if they called you first), and then to request written validation of that debt. That gives you time to research the debt to figure out whether you owe it and what you can do about it.

If you confirm the debt is outside the statute of limitations, you can write the debt collector explaining that you know the debt is too old, and ask them not to contact you again. (The FDCPA applies only to outside collection agencies, not to companies collecting their own debts.)

At the same time, you may not be able to get service again if you have an outstanding unpaid bill. If you continue to live in that utility company’s service area, you may need to find a way to pay the bill to avoid future problems.

Do I have to pay an old bill for a new address if I am just moving in?

“That would almost always be illegal,” says Harak. “The only exceptions would be if that person was related to you by blood or was a roommate.” But if the bill belonged to someone you didn’t know, you likely would not be required to pay it in order to get service.

What if the bill was from your parents or a former roommate who skipped out on the bill? Ask the utility company for a payment plan. In most states, they would be required to provide you with a way to catch up on the old bill. You may also have to put up a deposit in order to get service again.

What if someone else used my name to get utility service and didn’t pay the bill?

If you gave someone your permission to use your name to get service, the bill is yours and you’ll have to find a way to catch up. If they used your information without your knowledge or consent, however, that’s identity theft. The question is whether you are willing to report it. If you aren’t, the utility or collection agency may continue to try to collect from you.

The steps you’ll have to take to claim identity fraud vary by state.  In Massachusetts, for example, where Harak practices, “the utility companies will let you off the hook if you will name the person, if you will file a police report, or if you’ll go to court and sue that person.”  In other states, he says, you may have to take other steps to try to clear up the false debt—and that is not always an easy process.

Using someone else’s information to get service can also backfire on the person who received service under someone else’s name. “You tend to lose your rights as a customer because you’re not getting service under your name,” he says. If you qualify for some type of assistance, for example, you can’t ask for that help in the other person’s name.

My bill was way up and I can’t afford it. Can I stop them from disconnecting service?

Request a payment plan. These are available in almost every state, and it’s usually very easy to get a payment plan if you have one unusually high bill. “It’s one of the easier problems to solve,” Harak says. If your gas or electric company won’t work with you, he recommends appealing to your PUC.

He does caution that payment plans are better in some states than others. In some, they can’t be fewer than a specific number of months, while in others they can’t be longer than a specific period of time.

Make sure you only agree to a payment plan you can afford. As the NCLC guide points out, in some states you may not get the same advance notice of termination if you fall behind on a payment plan.

Ask about budget billing or “levelized” payments. Those plans allow you to pay a similar amount each month, adjusted periodically depending on your use. I switched to a budget plan with my electric plan after our first winter in our home, and since then my bills have been roughly the same each month, even in the coldest and hottest months.

I am disabled or unemployed and can’t afford it. Can I stop them from terminating my service?

Some twenty states offer protections against service termination if you are ill or have a very low income.  Many states offer protections to certain groups of customers during winter months. In those states, service can’t be shut off or you may be allowed to pay a smaller amount to avoid cut-off during certain months of the year or when the temperature falls below a certain number. (Only a few states offer protections during hot weather.) For example, Illinois residents are protected as follows:

Termination of gas and electric utility service is prohibited: on any day when the National Weather Service forecast for the following 24 hours covering the area of utility in which the residence is located included a forecast that the temperature will be 32° Fahrenheit or below and no electric or gas public utility shall disconnect service during the period of time from December 1 through and including March 31 of the immediately succeeding calendar year unless the utility has offered a deferred payment plan and informed the customer of specific agencies and funds available to them for payment assistance. Source: The Rights of Utility Consumers, page 63.

Lose your job, though, and you may have trouble keeping the electric or gas on. “Protections never hinge on the fact that you are unemployed, other than the fact that you may meet low-income qualifications,” warns Harak. If you do qualify, however, low income discount rates may be available. Contact your utility company and your state utility commission for more information.

There may also be specific protections available if someone living in your home has a serious illness that could be threatened by a shut off; if a young child or elderly; or is disabled.

In Arizona, for example, service can’t be terminated for nonpayment if doing so would threaten the well-being of an occupant of the residence due to medical condition, illness, each, disability or weather. Those customers must be provided with information about assistance and/or required to enter into a payment plan to avoid termination.

In some states, you’ll need to provide documentation from your physician stating that service termination would put your health at serious risk in order to qualify for protection.

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