Wednesday, April 25, 2007

OK, I'm angry at the Gas Company

I pay my bills online. This is a great way to take care of what has always felt like a chore to me. I get an email from my bank telling me who sent the bill, how much I owe, and when it's due. A few clicks more, and I have scheduled the payment with the bank and don't have to do anything else (well, aside from making sure there are funds to cover the payment when it is processed). As long as my bank account is secure and I have an internet connection everything is copacetic.

So, what's the downside? Why am I angry? A couple of things are wrong with this setup, all having to do with the vendors.

First, the gas company has decided (with the Public Utilities Commission's blessing) that reading the meter every month is too costly. So they "estimate" the bill one month in two (it may be one month in three), and that's what we're supposed to pay. If we don't pay it, they will turn off the gas. But get this-- it's the wrong amount! The gas company always over estimates the usage. I use gas for hot water and the stove. My usage is almost unvarying-- in five years, my usage hasn't changed more than perhaps 10% from one month to the next. And yet the estimate is invariably 50% high. Every time! Which means I get a bill for $40 one month, and $20 the next month. Sometimes it's $50/$15. Some months it's worse!

Next, there's the problem of due dates. The gas company (and every other utility) charges us a couple of dollars for a late payment. If everything goes right, that shouldn't happen when paying online, but sometimes the dates don't quite make sense on the emails that function as bills. If the payment goes through on last month's bill before the current month is computed, we're all OK. But for some reason, that doesn't always happen. Either the bill offers a due date after the next bill will be computed, or the next bill is computed earlier than the previous one. Last month my bill said I had to pay $56, which was a lot higher than usual. I got suspicious and checked, and indeed, the new bill included the $40 from my previous bill. I had clicked and paid the previous one according to the instructions on the email, but the current bill was computed before my account was credited. If I had followed the instructions on the current bill, I would have over paid. This has happened before--I ended up getting two bills in a row with a negative amount due-- though at the time I didn't follow the trail of transactions to find out what had happened.

And to add frosting to the cake, there's another "gotcha" if you use the email bill option. On the email itself, there's a link that will show the actual bill. The front page, with the total due. If you click the link to show the detail pages (how much gas did they deliver, and exactly how much did they charge, and what other charges were included?), there's an error.

Now, I admit, this is nickel and dime stuff. A couple of bucks on a bill to a vendor whom I detest (and I can pay in 6 clicks or less) doesn't seem like a big problem. But the gas company has literally millions of customers. That could add up to millions of dollars per month. And it's not dependent on delivery of product, it's dependent on them being sloppy in their electronic billing. When you can't see the detail, you can't see whether there were any late fees assessed on previous bills. There's a value in the email that tells my bank when the bill is due. I pay on the last date that will get the funds to the company by the due date. If that due date is incorrectly sent, I'll get a service charge, but I can't see it because I can't see the detail on the bill. And if, because the date the bank sends is wrong, I pay it late (or after the next bill is computed-- I'm still not sure it's "late" then), they will include the current bill on the next one, and again, I can't see that because the detail isn't showing up. All I can go by is the date the bank credits the funds from my account.

Online banking and bill pay is a great use of the internet, and it's both convenient and efficient to use. I have no doubt it's better for the vendors and for the bank. All electronic communication, no paper, no mail, and no lost transactions, and the ability to predict the dates of receipt. When the bank and the vendor are sloppy, this effectively adds to the vendor's bottom line by over charging the customers, and when the bill details aren't available, that means the customer can't find out they've been over charged. This makes me angry.