Learn How to Handle Utility Debt Collection
When it comes to debt collection, utilities are unusual, and do not follow the same laws credit card issuers, automobile finance companies, or mortgage lenders must follow.
|State Public Utility Commission||Municipal or No Regulator|
| Electric* |
| Water |
|* May be locally regulated if municipally owned|
Utilities are not bound by any federal consumer laws, and it is unsettled if utilities even need to honor the same state statutes of limitations everyone else must follow when it comes to collecting unpaid bills. Some utilities report to your state’s public utility commission, and must follow its rules. Other utilities, including one or more providing services to you right now, are barely regulated at all and do not need to pay attention to a utility commission.
Here’s what to do when you have a debt collection problem with a utility serving you.
Gas and Electric Utility Collections
Gas and Electric utilities are usually subject to rules created by your state’s public utility commission. If you have a problem with your gas or electric utility, your first step is to contact your state’s utility regulator. Start with this list of regulatory commissions to find your state’s utility regulator.
Your state regulator may or may not have authority over your utility. Investor-owned utilities are highly regulated. Municipal and rural electric cooperatives (co-ops) have less or no regulation. When you contact your state regulator, learn if your utility is regulated. If your utility is subject to state regulators, learn the rules they must follow concerning debt collection. State regulators usually post these rules, sometimes called "Consumer Rights," on their Web sites.
Here are some of the issues you need to learn:
- What is the time limit for collecting the debt?
- What payment plans must utilities offer?
- Are utilities allowed to cut-off service during winter months?
- What, if any, grant programs available to the unemployed, people on fixed incomes, or the disabled?
- Does the regulator offer a consumer-aid or ombudsman’s office to mediate disputes?
Note that the statute of limitations may apply to the utility trying to actively collect the debt from you. However, you may not be able to get service if you have an outstanding bill. Why? In general, businesses have the right to transact business with whom they wish. If you owe someone money, even if the debt is from 50 years ago, they can do business with you on the condition the old debt is paid. In all but two states, the passing of a state statute of limitations does not cancel or forgive a debt.
Use the information you learn from your state utility commission to resolve the debt.
For example, if you cannot afford to pay your utility bill, learn if you live in one of the 20 states that offer programs for the unemployed or people with low or no income. Learn if there’s a level-payment plan or low-income discount that might reduce your bill. Apply for a grant or deferment, if available.
If you are disabled, some states outlaw the disconnection of your utilities if the utility knows you are disabled.
Collections by Municipal Utilities
What should you do if your utility is not regulated by your state utilities commission?
Municipal and customer-owned utilities must follow published rules for operating as public utilities. Here, you will need to contact the customer service staff at your utility to learn what payment plans it offers. If you get no satisfaction in dealing with the customer service staff, contact a local legal aid society to enlist the aid of a lawyer in breaking the logjam.
Make sure you agree to a payment plan you can afford.
Collections by Unregulated Utilities
Some utilities are not regulated, or are not required to offer payment plans. For example, propane and heating oil companies and satellite TV providers are not regulated, but are subject to state debt collection laws, like any other business. If you have a problem with non-utility in your state, contact your state attorney general’s office, and file a complaint.
Utilities Collections by a Collection Agent
If you move from a utility’s service area or otherwise no longer receive services from the utility, the utility may ask a collection agent to collect the account, or sell your account to a collection agent. The fact the collection account was based on a utility debt does not change the rules collection agents must follow. In other words, collection agents must follow the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) regardless of the collection account’s source.