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Business Consuming Interests

Be careful lest you end up with someone else's BGE tab

Paying for your electricity probably isn't top of your list of favorite activities, so don't end up stuck with the bill for someone else's, too.

It happens, consumer advocates warn.

Louise Carwell, senior staff attorney at Maryland Legal Aid, said clients have come to her with "enormous" bills -- in the neighborhood of $10,000 -- that they say they didn't rack up. She said she's seen such cases more frequently in the last year or so.

"They thought they told BGE they were leaving, they thought BGE had done a final reading, and then no final reading is done and ... the service remains in the customer's name for months -- and years," Carwell said.

The new tenant then uses electricity without opening a new account in his or her own name, she said. And the earlier renter is on the hook. She said some clients are presented with the tab long after they moved.

There's often no recourse for these customers except bankruptcy because they don't have the money to pay it or written proof that they requested a final reading on the account, she said.

"To try to provide proof that five years ago, you called the gas and electric company to come and do a final reading, and the utility has no record of that -- it's really the utility's word against the tenant's word," Carwell said.

Her advice: Contact Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. right away when you're moving, get the final reading on that account in writing and keep it for your records.

Carol Dodson, BGE’s chief customer officer, said the company wasn't aware of such requests for help to Legal Aid.

She said customers should be sure to call to disconnect service when they're leaving, something she said "doesn't happen in all cases," but she added that they should also call if they're asked to pay for power they didn't use.

"If somebody can prove they weren't getting the service, then we wouldn't charge them for the service," said Jason Manuel, BGE's manager of revenue management.

Carwell said her clients often have trouble documenting where they were, particularly over a stretch of years, because their low level of income leads to housing instability. They might stay with a friend, rent a series of places without a written lease or become homeless for a time, she said.

Another issue to remember when it comes to utility bills: If there's a relationship between the person who left and the one who stayed -- if the BGE account is in both spouse's names and one moves out, for example -- both remain responsible, BGE said.

Jeanne Keen of Dundalk said she learned the hard way that it's easy to get stuck with the bill if there's some link, even a past one.

Keen said she agreed to rent the basement apartment in her house to an ex-husband at the end of 2009, and she moved out the following summer.

Last year around the time he moved out, she said, she discovered the BGE tab on the property was more than $6,000, a figure corroborated by state regulatory filings. The account was in his name, but BGE held her responsible for it, according to documents filed with the regulators.

Keen, who was laid off last year, couldn't begin to pay $6,000-plus. Her 31-year-old daughter and 5-year-old grandson needed to move into the house but couldn't while the situation was unresolved, she said.

BGE spokesman Rachael Lighty said she couldn't comment on Keen's case because of customer confidentiality. But speaking generally, she said customers aren't liable if they can prove they weren't living in the home at the time of the power usage -- unless "there is a relationship that would constitute them as liable."

BGE called Keen and her daughter "associates" of her ex-husband in a letter to the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Keen went to the commission for help, providing documents to show she'd been living in Baltimore while electricity went unpaid at the Dundalk house. The agency investigated and concluded in December, "you are not responsible for the bills created by your former tenant."

Her ex-husband could not be reached for comment.

The experience made Keen much more cautious. She's moved back to her house, and though her daughter pays the BGE bill, Keen makes sure it's up to date.

"Your brother, your sister, your uncle, your aunt, someone you've known for years -- it doesn’t matter," Keen said. "You have to know the bill is paid. ... You can be held liable unless you can prove otherwise. I was very fortunate to be able to prove that I wasn't at the property."

Got an energy experience to share? Email Jamie at jhopkins@baltsun.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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