Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Gerbil and Goliath

Our move from Cleveland to Berkeley last year was more of a culture shock that I'd expected. I learned very quickly that out here, anything between Chicago and the Atlantic is considered "back East." This includes Ohio, which is not East at all, but Midwest. (To be fair, back East we called California "out West.") More importantly, I learned that "Ohio" is a dirty word. Many have assumed that because I moved here from Ohio, I must have been born in Ohio. When I say that I only lived in Ohio for four years, because that's where grad school was, and really most of my life has been spent either in the Philadelphia area or western Massachusetts--well, people tend to resume eye contact.

Another thing I learned: no one trusts anyone. I grew up in a small town where people mostly trusted each other, although not enough to leave the doors unlocked at night. In western Mass, people also mostly trust each other, although no one really trusts college students (which is entirely reasonable). The same is true of northeast Ohio.

Out here? No trust. This is mostly reasonable, because there are a lot of thieves, scam artists, and perpetrators of random violence. I am naturally a bit paranoid anyway, so this is all fine with me. What I have a problem with is that utility companies don't trust their customers.

When we moved here, I signed us up for phone service with the same company I'd used for four years in Ohio. Our first bill had a due date of not more than seven calendar days after I received it--which was three weeks after it was supposedly printed. I called the company and wanted to know why they sat on our bill for three weeks and then gave us a week to pay up.

"We have to establish your credit," the representative said.

"But I have been a customer for four years, in Ohio! I've never been late with a payment!"

"That's a different branch of the company."

"Well, can't you access my payment history and establish my credit that way?"

"Oh, no, ma'am. We can't do that. Your bill is due in a week."

"Why didn't you send it to me earlier? It was printed three weeks ago, I got it today, and it's due next week!"

"We shorten the payment period for customers who haven't yet established credit. We lengthen the period after a couple months if you get your payment in on time."

"Um, if you intentionally don't send new customers their bills until a week before you need their payment, you are basically ensuring that they will be late and therefore can't establish credit with you."

"This is what all the utility companies do in California, ma'am."

I have never been late with a payment in my life, which is why I'm in charge of almost all the bills and why we have successfully established credit with the phone company. The energy company is a different story. PG&E (yes, that PG&E, of Enron scandal fame) demanded a deposit when we began our service. The deposit was twice the monthly bill for previous tenants, and it was to be returned to us after 13 months--with interest--provided that we had no more than one late payment in that period.

So I sent PG&E a check for $104 in May of 2005. They promised to return it in 13 months, plus some piddling amount of interest (to be compounded monthly). 13 months, they said, would be June of 2006.

I called PG&E this past May to find out if we'd see a credit on the bill or a separate refund check. Quoth PG&E: "A credit for your deposit, plus interest, will appear on your bill in June. Thanks for your terrific payment record!"

June came, and so did the PG&E bill. I called PG&E and asked why they had not applied any credit. Quoth PG&E: "You will receive your credit in July because although you opened your account in May, we didn't turn your power on until June. Thanks for your terrific payment record!" The bit about the power coming on in June was correct--but only because PG&E did not successfully turn on our power as promised in May, and we told them to wait a week until we actually moved in.

July came, but the credit on the bill? Nope. I called PG&E and asked where my deposit was. Quote PG&E: "You will see that on your August bill. July is indeed the 13th month from when we turned on your power, but your interest isn't actually calculated until the 14th month. Thanks for your terrific payment record!"

August arrived, and I was steamed. Somehow we still owed PG&E money! I called them up and demanded to know what was going on. Quoth PG&E: "Your bill was printed on August 2, but we aren't figuring anyone's interest until August 14. Your credit will show up on your September bill. Thanks for your terrific payment record!"

Yesterday I received yet another PG&E bill. As you might have guessed, there was no mention of a credit. I called. I was really really really mad! Quoth PG&E: "Let's see, your account was opened in May... 13 months would have been June... hm..."

I jumped in: "This process has been very frustrating. I was told in May of last year that I would get my deposit back in June of this year. This June I was told I'd get it back in July. In July, I was told August. In August, I was told September. It's September, and I want to know exactly when this matter is going to be resolved."

"Oh," said PG&E. "It looks like we never calculated your return. My supervisor is doing it right now. This will show up on your October bill."

I was livid. "Hold on. At the beginning of August, I was promised this would be taken care of on the 14th of that month. That never happend. How do I know you are actually doing what you've promised?"

"Trust us," said PG&E.

"What if it's not on my bill next month?" I said, running out of patience.

"Call us back and we'll take care of it for November. Thanks for your terrific payment record!"

With interest compounded monthly, it's actually worse for PG&E to hold onto our deposit than for us not to have it back in a timely fashion. And, as my wife points out, our PG&E deposit is currently our highest-yield investment. Maybe I'll let them hold onto our $104+ a little bit longer. By the time we get it back, we might be able to retire on it.

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