New Slogan for Nicor: “Gas? We’re Full Of It!”

It’s funny now.  Wait, no it’s not.  I’m still pissed and borderline litigious in making sure they understand the gravity of what they did.

Last Monday, our gas was turned off.  No warning, no phone call or email or notice.  Just some nob drove up to our house, went to the side yard and turned it off, putting a lock on for good measure.  Only when we began preparing dinner did we realize this, and quickly made a call to find out what had occurred.  Conveniently, we got a message saying that they couldn’t offer any information because they’re computers were down.

I left for a business trip early the next morning, concerned that my family had no hot water but confident that it was just a minor problem.  But no.  My wife calls Nicor and has this conversation:

“Thank you for calling Nicor Customer Service.  My name is PinHead One.  How can I help you?”

“Hi, I’m calling because I think my gas has been turned off?”

“Yes ma’am it has.  For non-payment.”

“What?!”

“You owe us $1,900.00.”

“What?!  There must be some mistake!”

“No ma’am.  You haven’t paid us for the past year of service.”

“That can’t be.  We pay all of our bills on time.”

“Ma’am, we’ve not received any payments.”

So, my wife calls me in Major Freak Out mode.  I’d just landed in Seattle, but immediately call Nicor to figure out what has happened.  Well, it’s very simple: our home is new construction, and they show in their records our calling around August 23rd 2007 to have the gas service put in our name, etc.  Like most of our bills, we immediately set them up as a payee in our online financial systems and prepared to pay them like any other company.  Problem is, they never set us a bill.  Nothing.  Nada.  And, after 3yrs of living in Seattle with (1) utility company, it never dawned on us that we were missing a utility bill

Well, at this point I call them and explain that this is an honest mistake, that blame is to be shared given that we can’t expect to pay what we’ve never received a bill for.  The conversation goes as this:

“Sir, we’ve been sending you bills monthly.”

“No, you haven’t.”

“Yes, we have.”

“Ok.  Do you really think I would go a whole year without paying my gas bill?  I understand that there are deadbeats out there, but a whole year?”

“Sir, our records show we’ve sent you bills.  You may need to check with the Post Office to see why you haven’t been getting them.”

“Why would the Post Office keep my gas bill from me?”

“I don’t know sir.  But we’ve been sending the bills to your home.”

Exasperated, I decided to deal with one issue at a time, and ask if I can just pay the $1,900 over the phone right then.

“We only accept MasterCards.  No check-by-phone.  And only certain debit cards.”

“What?  Ok, whatever.  Let’s try my debit card.”  I give him my number, while driving down the 405 towards Bellevue, WA.

“Sorry sir, that’s not a card we can process.  There’s only a few debit cards we can process, regardless of the bank or MasterCard/Vista affiliation.”

It’s at this point that I realize that all of the credit cards and debit cards I have with me are Visa affiliated, save 2.  I’m able to transfer $750 without pulling over to the side of the road, the cup holder now holding over $8,000 in unusable cash and credit.

“So, can you take this in good faith and turn the gas back on?”

“No sir, we can’t.  Because your gas has already been disconnected, we need the full outstanding balance.  And, it may take up to 2wks before we can get someone out to turn it on.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, we have to put you on the schedule.”

“But you’ve never sent me a bill!  Does it really seem like I’ve been trying to rip you off?!  Can’t you understand that this is a huge mistake?”

“I’m sorry sir.  But we’ve confirmed the address with your wife.  There’s not anything else I can do until we receive the balance of the amount past due, which includes $400 in late fees.”

I hang up.  At this juncture I realize that The Chicago Way has me over a barrel.  So I call my attorney, who is both are sympathetic and laughably surprised at the lengths Nicor would go to demonstrate how stupid they are.  But he also agrees that my best, next step is to pay the bill.

After spending 2hrs moving money amongst accounts like a drug lord, I call Nicor back to pay the balance.  This should put me in better position to negotiate getting the gas turned back on sooner than 2 weeks.

But when I call, I get transferred to their automated service.  I’m not paying close attention, but think I hear it say “Your current balance is $1,900.  Your last payment was received on June 18, 2005…”  2005?  2005?!  That’s the year and month that I sold my house in Chicago and moved to Seattle?!  I hang up the phone and call my attorney back.  He chuckles. 

“They probably linked your new home to your old address.” 

“They can do that?”  I ask.

“I wouldn’t put anything past them.  You might try calling the Illinois Commerce Commission.” 

Slightly peeved that I’m doing all the leg work here, I call the ICC and explain the situation.

“Well, it sounds like they may be using your original account and just updated the Service Address but left the Billing Address as your old home.”

“They can do that?” I ask.

“….yeah.  It’s happened before.  I would call them and ask for copies of every bill the purport to have sent in the past year.  They have to keep them for 24mos by law.  Good luck.”

I sit down.  Surely they wouldn’t have been so stupid, so lazy as to use a 2yr old, closed account for a new residence?  And, wouldn’t the customer service rep have seen that when we called?

I’ve worked myself into a lather at this point, and call my wife to make inquiry.  My day is filled with meetings, but that afternoon I have a voicemail from her.

“Good news!  I called Nicor back and got ahold of someone who actually took the time to listen and investigate.  Guess what?  They were sending the bills to the address we lived at 3 years ago!  They are finding a technician who can come out tonight and turn the gas back on.  Oh, and they’ve credited us the $400 in late fees.”

Elated at just that news, I hang up and pump my fist.  Part exaltation, part wishing it was connecting to the bulbous nose of the customer service rep I’d spoken with earlier.  Even the technician that came out was sympathetic to the situation and basically implied that the CS pool is a bunch of pimple-faced morons.

So, what occurred was just as was suspected: when my wife called to set up service for our new home, they asked for my SSN.  Upon seeing that I had an account (albeit closed), the goober who took the call decided to save themselves some time and just updated the service address in the existing record.  While it’s partly understandable why this practice would be allowed, it does raise a few questions:

  1. Why keep a closed record?  It was paid in full, no past due, etc.  If they needed it for reference, fine.  But it should have been read-only, no changes allowed.
  2. What checks & balances were in place?  Like with financial institutions and other companies with half a brain and a modicum of customer concern, they should have sent a letter to the service address to confirm that that the bills would be sent to another address.
  3. And what about the non-payment?  That would have been a great opportunity to alert the service address that they are scheduled for disconnect because the billing address has been non-responsive.
  4. Lastly, I wish I could be face-to-face with the customer service rep who initially took my call and basically called me a liar.  What separates them from the helpful individual who identified the issue does give credence to Darwinism – clearly there’s an evolutionary gap of intelligence and sympathy that is missing.

This has been cathartic, but I’m still upset about it.  Like I said, now we have to go through the process of reviewing our credit history and finding out what we need to clear our record.  In summary, I keep thinking back to whether there is any fault on my part, and I can find none.  In fact, had I paid the $1,900 immediately, I would still have gone without a bill and may never have had the mystery solved.  There is still a letter to the Nicor executives and every customer service website that will happen, because I want to make sure they fully understand how screwed up they are and the impact it had on me and my family.

But I’m thankful that Jacinda was patient and was the better person in all of this.  It was probably best that she contacted Nicor; I’m sure her demeanor helped set a constructive tone that allowed the CS rep to understand, sympathize and get to the root of the problem.