Archive for March, 2009

Verizon Charges Customers for *not* using Long Distance
March 18, 2009

This just doesn’t sound right at all.

Tracy Glass sent me this email:

“Recently, I’ve noticed Verizon phone service charging what they call a “short fall charge” for NOT using their long distance service. Essentially, I was told that if I signed up for Verizon as my long distance  carrier and did not make any long distance calls, they would charge me a fee for their “short fall.” Is this legal?”

Here’s what I can tell you: Verizon says the “shortfall charge” helps pay for maintenance of the network. So even if customers don’t make long-distance calls, they still have access to the phone network.

Tracy didn’t say how much her “shortfall charge” was, but complaints online reveal customers are being charged anywhere from $2 to $5.

Verizon has told some customers that if they want that monthly charge off of their bill, they have to pay a one-time charge of $5.50.

As for whether it is legal, I have a call into the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Generally, as long as the charge was explained up front (even if it’s in tiny print in a contract), it is legal. I will let you know what the AG’s office says. CheCk back here  for an update .

 The AG’s office is also where you should complain if you’re unhappy about this charge.



Deal or No Deal?
March 16, 2009

In tonight’s “Ask Amy” segment, we showed you how to check out investments before you hand over your money to some company you’ve never heard of.

You should compare the interest rate being offered to the going rate on You can also call the Texas State Securities Board to inquire about the company.  That agency can let you know if the business is licensed in Texas.  They can also tell you if the business or the owner of the business has any criminal complaints or past convictions of fraud.  The # to the Houston office is (713) 426-0336.

Now for the tricky part. I reported that you should check to find out if a financial institution and its investments are insured by the FDIC.  The website is not all that user-friendly, so here’s what you need to do.

Start with this site: FDIC Bank Find 

You can type in a bank or financial institution name and the city/state where it is located.  It will give you a profile of the bank and let you know if it is insured by the FDIC.

For specific information on FDIC coverage at that bank, go to the website we mentioned earlier: Click on the green “Get Started” button.

If you don’t already have an account at that bank, you can type in dummy information just to check coverage for varying dollar amounts. 

For example, if you typed in that you have a personal checking account at Chase with $13,475.00 in it, the website will tell you that you are insured for the full $13,475.00 in your account.

If you type in Buddy’s Big Bucks, you’ll likely get a different message.

PUC Chairman Explains the Price Difference
March 11, 2009

When we aired the lastest segment on how much you’ll pay for CenterPoint’s new Smart Meters last week, I got emails from a lot of you.  

Sam Karabasz wrote this one:

“Are you guys going to let them get away with no one has a clear answer why their project requires consumers in Houston pay 52% more than the people in Dallas.  Are wage rates higher in Houston?  Are the meters that much better?  Sounds like an opportunity for an Investigative Reporter!”

Most of you agreed with Karabasz and said I let CenterPoint’s Floyd LeBlanc off too easy when he didn’t answer the question as to why Houstonians are paying almost double for the meters compared to what people are paying in the Dallas area.  

What you didn’t see in the story (there’s usually quite a bit we can’t include because of time constraints) is that LeBlanc told me that he didn’t know the in’s and out’s of Oncor’s plans (the company installing the meters in Dallas). He said he could only talk about CenterPoint. He said with the cost of the equipment, installation and support for the meters, CenterPoint came up with the amount it needed for the project and it was approved by the PUC .

That’s exactly what happened with Oncor. They did the math, told the PUC how much they needed and the PUC approved the fees Oncor wanted to pass along to its customers. 

When I called a spokesman for Oncor, they said they would also like to know why CenterPoint was charging so much more for its meters. They said if they could install them for less, then CenterPoint should be able to as well.

Karabasz, the viewer whose email I posted above, took it upon himself to write to the Chairman of the PUC Barry Smitherman.  Smitherman replied very quickly. You can read his explanation below:

Mr. Karabasz,

The price difference is due to a couple of issues.  First, the back-office costs for CenterPoint were higher than that for Oncor.  That is, the computers and systems that would actually collect and manage the data collected by the smart meters had a higher cost for CenterPoint.  The second factor is that Oncor has nearly one million more customers among which it can spread out the total costs.  Oncor has 3.2 million customers, while CenterPoint has 2.4 million customers.  With a larger customer base, Oncor can keep its per-customer costs lower.  In fact, if looking at just the meters, CenterPoint has a lower per-meter cost than Oncor.  All of the parties in the proceeding agreed to the settlement in the case, which set out the costs for consumers.  The parties included customer representatives such as the Office of Public Utility Counsel, the City of Houston, and the Gulf Coast Coalition of Cities.  These parties all evaluated the proposal from CenterPoint to ensure that the costs were as low as possible.  It should also be noted that the surcharge will be spread out over 12 years, and will only be $3.24 per month for the first two years before dropping to $3.05 per month for the remaining recovery period.  Both proceedings were done in response to state legislation which encouraged the deployment of advanced meters.  With advanced meters, customers will have the tools to better manage their electric bills by being able to monitor electric use in real time and make better informed decisions about different electric products.  Consumers will also have the chance to participate in demand response programs or purchase energy efficient products that will work with the smart meters and lower their monthly bills.

If you have any other questions about smart meters or other electric issues, please let me know.


Chairman Barry Smitherman

Public Utility Commission of Texas

(512) 936-7247

I do have to hand it to Smitherman for replying so quickly with a decent explanation. Maybe you should all call him directly when you have electric bill complaints that the PUC’s Customer Protection Division never investigates.

Check out all of our recent investigations into “Your Electric Bill.”

Dismantling a Dealership
March 9, 2009

I wish I could post court documents for you to read here. Unfortunately the blog service won’t let me.

I was reading through the hundreds of pages of court records filed in the bankruptcy case since last September, when I came across a letter a Rosenberg man wrote to the Alabama bankruptcy Judge.

It was that letter that I was trying to post here… but was unsuccessful. The man traded in his leased 2004 Chevy Avalanche for a 2008 Avalanche. He owed and paid $21,000. to Bill Heard of Sugar Land. Unfortunately the 2004 was sold even though Bill Heard never had possession of the title because it never paid off the truck. The customer has been paying for the 2008 and the 2004 since September.

To add insult to injury, he can’t get the permanent license plates for his new truck either beacuse Bill Heard never paid the taxes on the truck. It costs the customer $25 every month to get new temporary tags.

When Will you get “Smart?”
March 4, 2009

In tonight’s “Ask Amy” segment, we answered your questions about the deployment of digital meters by CenterPoint Energy. They’re calling them “Smart Meters.”

CenterPoint says they started installing the meters on March 1st on homes and businesses inside 610, North of I-10 and east of 59 North.

Got that? If not, you can check out the “Deployment Maps” on CenterPoint’s site.

I was just curious what might become of the 2.2 million meters CenterPoint is replacing.  They said the old meters on our homes now will likely be sold to a third world country.