KIYC: JCP&L customers say company is strong-arming them to pay fees

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A New Jersey utility company may be abusing its power by disconnecting or threatening to disconnect service unless customers pay large utility bills for which they are not legally responsible, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds. Jersey Central Power & Light defends its aggressive approach as a means of fighting fraud and says customers who are treated unfairly have recourse.

Judy and Steve Krug say they were caught by surprise when their power was shut off without warning in November 2016. JCP&L transferred a balance of approximately $7,000 to their bill from another account, and insisted it be repaid before service would be restored. The Krugs, who’d just moved to New Jersey from Florida, say they had no idea whose balance it was and that JCP&L wouldn’t tell them.

PART 2 - KIYC: NJ BPU failed to adequately investigate JCP&L complaints

“They would just say, ‘It’s fraud’,” Judy Krug remembers. “And I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ And they would say, ‘We can’t talk about it because it’s fraud. ’”

After a week without power or answers, the Krugs reluctantly agreed to a payment plan. They’re not alone. Over the past three years, public records show dozens of people have filed complaints with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, saying JCP&L transferred other people’s bills to them, often ignoring evidence that they were not responsible and threatening to cut off their power, or actually disconnecting it, to compel them to pay.

JCP&L Spokesman Ron Morano defends the utility’s aggressive approach as a means of fighting fraud. “We have a provision in our tariff that allows us to seek to recover what we feel is owed to us for our services,” he says. That tariff authority states that if JCP&L has “reason to believe” that a customer is trying to “circumvent payment” by placing utilities in someone else’s name, it can “refuse to initiate” or “discontinue service.” But the tariff also says JCP&L can only take that action if it is dealing with “substantially the same household.”  

Kane In Your Corner found numerous cases where it appeared JCP&L overstepped its authority. In most of those cases, BPU allowed the utility’s action to stand.

Last summer, JCP&L shut off Angela O’Neil’s power because of a $10,000 bill racked up by her late father. JCP&L transferred the entire amount and refused to turn power back on, even after being notified by O’Neil’s attorney in writing that she had only lived with her father to care for him during the last five months of his life and not during the period when the vast majority of the bill had been accrued.

In the spring of 2016, JCP&L told Chivas Caswell her power would be disconnected unless she paid about $10,000, which had been owed by her stepfather. She had not lived with him since he was a child and even provided leases to prove it. JCP&L only deleted the bill from her account after Kane In Your Corner contacted the utility on her behalf.

Michael Anderson and his roommates were literally kept in the dark over a $5,000 bill belonging to Anderson’s late father. None of Anderson’s roommates had lived with Anderson’s father, so according to BPU standards, this was not “substantially the same household.” JCP&L was clearly aware of the roommates as it refused to allow them to set up the account in their names.

JCP&L sometimes used creative logic to stretch the definition of "substantially the same household" to seemingly absurd lengths. In one case, it held a man responsible for his mother-in-law's unpaid bill on the grounds that he was married and living with the woman's daughter, and she had once lived with her mother. In other, it contended that a bill transfer was valid because "(the first person's) husband is connected to the home (the second person) is purchasing."

New Jersey Rate Counsel Stefanie Brand believes JCP&L is wildly overstepping its authority. “I don’t understand how it can just follow you for the rest of your life,” she says. “If you happen to live in a house were the bill didn’t get paid, that doesn’t mean that you’re forever indebted to the utility.” 

Brand also takes issue with JCP&L over who is responsible for proving whether a ratepayer owes a debt. Morano insists “the burden of proof lies with the ratepayer to prove that they are not trying to circumvent a debt.”

Brand takes the opposite view. “The burden of proof should be squarely on the utility. But unless someone makes them follow those rules, they may not.”

As for Judy Krug, she says JCP&L never did tell her or her husband whose $7,000 bill they wound up paying to get their power turned back on, or why they were held responsible for it. She says the utility just turned off the lights and the heat, and kept them off, until they caved to the pressure. “It’s scary that somebody could have that much power,” she says.

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