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Can consumers outraged by outages be compensated for woes?

Cathy Pelekakis, who was without power for six days after the June derecho, quickly made a few calls to complain: to her state representative, the Baltimore County executive and the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Next on her list: a letter to Comcast.

"I don't appreciate the fact they are charging me for services that I never received through no fault of my own," says the 60-year-old Dundalk resident. "I'm going to ask them to compensate me for that time. … It's not much, $5 or $10. It's the principle behind it."

Thousands of Marylanders are likely feeling much the same. Nearly 1.1 million utility customers in the state were left without power in the wake of the June 29 storm. At first, customers worried about when their electricity would come back on, given the sweltering weather. But now that the power has returned, they're turning their attention to cable TV, phone and utility bills.

"Once the bills start coming in, it probably crosses the minds of some people that it seems unfair to have to pay the full bill when their service has not been there for the full period," says Ruth Susswein, spokeswoman for Consumer Action, who was without electricity for five days at her Montgomery County home.

Unfortunately, consumers seeking compensation for power and service interruptions will face a mixed bag of responses. Don't expect anything from your electric utility. You might get a refund from Verizon. And Comcast — well, it depends.

Here's what you need to know if you're seeking a credit or refund for disrupted service:

Electric utilities When it comes to the storm and other "acts of God," electric utilities in Maryland won't reimburse customers for their pain and suffering, spoiled food or nights at a hotel. Utilities across the country follow similar rules.

Customers, of course, won't be charged for any electricity — which is the bulk of their bill — since, after all, the power was out.

Some consumer advocates and politicians, though, are upset that consumers who lost electricity still have to pay a so-called billing stabilization adjustment for the first day they were without power. This adjustment, designed to make sure utilities have enough revenue to maintain their infrastructure, varies month to month. Sometimes it's a charge on a customer's account; sometimes it's a credit.

BGE estimates the adjustment will be less than 50 cents for the typical customer who lost power. Spokesman Robert L. Gould says it's similar to when foul weather prevents municipalities from collecting trash — homeowners don't get a rebate on their taxes, he points out.

Be aware that even if you lost power, your electric bill could be higher than last year's because of this month's heat wave, says People's Counsel Paula Carmody, whose office advocates for residential customers on utility issues.

If customers suffer damages that could be the fault of the utilities and not Mother Nature, the companies say they will investigate and might provide financial relief, depending on the circumstances.

"We would work with individual customers," Gould says.

Residential customers can lodge a complaint with BGE by calling 800-685-0123 or by going online at BGE.com and filling out the "submit a comment or question" form under customer service.

Pepco customers can call 202-872-2452.

Consumer Action's Susswein says a power surge during a snowstorm last year fried the motor on her electric garage door. She filed a claim with Pepco and was fully compensated for the damage.

Pepco has been criticized for its response to outages, but in this case, Susswein says, "they did the right thing."

Verizon About 200,000 Verizon customers in Maryland and Washington lost phone, TV and Internet service because of the June storm.

Verizon spokeswoman Sandy Arnette wrote in an email that the company was "honoring requests for out-of-service refunds due to the storm." Customers can inquire about a refund at 800-837-4966 or go online at http://www.verizon.com/support.

Arnette says refunds are usually handled on a case-by-case basis.

Still, Verizon is sometimes required to give credit. The Maryland Public Service Commission regulates Verizon's land-line phone business, and requires the company to give credit to customers whose phones were out of service for 24 hours or more.

Comcast Cable TV is more loosely regulated.

Comcast won't give credit to customers whose cable service was disrupted during the recent power outage, says spokeswoman Alisha Martin. However, if a customer's cable remains out of service even after power is returned, Comcast will consider a credit on a "case-by-case basis," she says. The same goes for other times when service is disrupted.

Make your case by calling Comcast at 800-COMCAST.

Complain anyway If you're feeling aggrieved about a disruption in service at any time, it never hurts to complain to the company to see if it can makes things right.

Karen Leland, co-author of "Customer Service for Dummies," offers this tip: Ask the company for a credit or something else to compensate you for the inconvenience.

"If they say no, then say, 'What can you do for me?'" Leland says.

Even if the company won't provide relief, complaining could be worthwhile.

"If enough people complain, the company may get the message and change their policy for the future or take some corrective action," Leland says. "So you are not just complaining for yourself, but as a consumer in general."

Sometimes the only way to feel better is by venting.

The Public Service Commission will let consumers do just that. The regulator will hold eight meetings starting next month to hear — from customers' perspective — how the electric utilities responded to the latest outage.

The commissioners look for themes in consumer gripes to discover issues that need addressing.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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