Bamboozled: Bungled bills

Everybody makes mistakes. It’s how you act after the mistake is brought to your attention that shows your character and your will BB brandingto do the right thing.

But every once in a while, someone makes mistake upon mistake upon mistake. At that point, we wonder why.

In recent months, Bamboozled has received several complaints about Elizabethtown Gas and errors surrounding its billing and meter accuracy. Here’s a sampling.


Who can forget Chuck Pierce? The Hackettstown man was featured in this space during the summer after Elizabethtown Gas stopped sending him bills. Pierce was receiving gas, knew he must owe money and tried to pay. Over and over he called, but reps insisted his account had a zero balance.

Bamboozled asked EG to take a closer look, and it discovered it had been unable to read Pierce’s meter. EG revised his bill, Pierce paid what he owed and all was well.

111009At least all was well for his June and July bills. Then came August, when he received a “final bill” for 11 days of service. The bills stopped but the gas continued to flow.

‘‘Do I assume that this is the gas company’s way of thanking me for pointing out a problem in their billing system?’’ said Pierce, 59. ‘‘Am I the recipient of a lifetime of free gas? Or are they setting me up for the mother of all gas bills at some point down the road?’’

Bamboozled called EG to see what the problem was this time.

‘‘We determined that a customer called to inform us they were moving, and wanted gas service transferred into his name. This customer gave us Mr. Pierce’s address,’’ said Tami Gerke, spokeswoman for EG parent company AGL Resources.

EG will back-bill Pierce for his consumption.

‘‘Wouldn’t you have thought that there would have been a big note on my account warning everyone not to touch it without permission from the company president, or God maybe?’’ Pierce said.


Sandy Bagni of Vernon has been struggling with EG since January when she received a bill for $1,213.34. After many calls, she learned there was a problem with a new meter that was installed in 2006. The high bill was a back charge for three years of usage.

‘‘I paid every bill they sent me on time and I would have paid whatever it was,’’ Bagni said. ‘‘I could see if after six months they realized something was wrong, but why did it take three years?’’

Bagni, a 43-year-old single mother of two, continued to pay for current service, but she ignored the back-billing amounts.

In mid-October, EG sicced a collection agency on Bagni.

That was the last straw.

Bamboozled contacted EG spokeswoman Gerke, who called off the collection agency. Gerke said EG fixed the programming error on Bagni’s meter, is sending an apology letter and offering a long-term payment plan for charges equal to one year of back bills. Bagni is still waiting for official notice from the company.

‘‘If I have to pay it I’ll pay it, but I still feel it’s their fault,’’ Bagni said. ‘‘I feel that it is completely unjust for me to have to pay for one of their employee’s mistakes.’’


Michael Cipolla, who lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Hackettstown, doesn’t use much gas. So getting bills for $10 in summer months didn’t raise any concern.

In September, he received a letter saying his EG meter hadn’t been registering since December 2007. The back bill: $713.56.

‘‘This total was consistent with my average consumption and I was more than willing to pay,’’ Cipolla said. ‘‘Two days later I received another bill for $1,826.44.’’

Customer service told Cipolla the bill was based on something called “premise consumption,’’ which Cipolla said the rep couldn’t define. He said he asked the rep to look at his average consumption, but the rep refused.

Cipolla sent a letter to EG with a breakdown of his first year’s payments and consumption. He offered to pay $773.70, his calculation for his actual usage for the period when the meter wasn’t working.

No response. But a week later, he received another bill for $1,835.71. Then a few days later, a bill for $1,529.55. Another week, another bill, this one for $1,211.36.

He sent some money to EG, hoping it would stop his account from going to collections, and then he contacted Bamboozled.

And we called Gerke, who said Cipolla had a non-registering meter and had been billed only the minimum service charge during those many months.

‘‘The revised billing was based on the consumption history of the home prior to the metering issue,’’ Gerke said.

But Cipolla’s past annual consumption was in the $700 range, so why a more than $1,200 bill? Something didn’t add up, so we asked EG to take yet another look.

After significant back-and-forth, EG agreed to accept Cipolla’s original offer of $773.70, and the two parties agreed to a reasonable payment plan.

‘‘I didn’t want a freebie. I just wanted to pay what I owe,’’ Cipolla said.


We thank Elizabethtown Gas for taking steps to correct these errors, but we’re starting to see a pattern.

A quick look at consumer complaint message boards shows EG is a popular target of consumers who say they’ve had wrongly programmed meters, which has led to back-billing disputes.

How common? EG said it doesn’t have complaint statistics but spokeswoman Gerke said customers who believe a meter isn’t working correctly should contact EG immediately.

The Board of Public Utilities has recorded 29 complaints about meter or remote reader malfunctions since 2006. To be fair, for a company with about 273,000 customers in New Jersey, that doesn’t sound like many complaints. But based on what Bamboozled saw on those message boards, plus the e-mails we’ve received, we suspect there are others who haven’t gone on the record with the BPU.

One would think EG would take a preventive look at its meters, or at the very least create a system to put a red flag on accounts that suddenly have a large drop in usage.

EG, if you can correct some of these issues before any more frustrated customers come to Bamboozled, we’ll all be better off. And if you add some kind of alert to your system, I’d love to tell our readers about it in a future column.