This guest blog post was written by Aimee Gendusa-English, Lead Community Service Liaison at the Citizens Utility Board of Illinois.
In my years at the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), I have probably talked to thousands of people in this predicament. It may be something that you find on your credit report, or it might be a charge suddenly added to your bill. Many times, though, it’s just something you hear from a customer service representative on the phone when you are trying to get the gas or electricity turned on in your new home. And at that point, you’re in a huge time crunch. Don’t panic - you do have rights!
Get the details
Ask the company for the exact address, start date and end date for the service associated with the bill. Ideally, you should be able to get a bill or letter by mail, email, or fax. But if you are on the phone, insist on getting the information verbally. Ask for a supervisor if you need to, and write down everything they tell you about your records. If you cannot get the address and dates of service, file a complaint through CUB or the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) immediately.
Check the facts if it seems suspicious
You should follow up on the bill to make sure it is accurate. Here are some specific ways you can do this, based on your situation:
I never lived at that address
If you do not recognize the address at all, ask the company how they linked you to this account. Current utility regulations require government-issued identification to establish utility service. But in the past, they did not. If someone actively used your name or social security number to establish service, you may need to file official identity theft reports with the proper authorities. However, that takes time, so in the meantime see if they will let you submit some documentation that shows you did not live there.
I lived at that address, but I did not have a utility account
This kind of situation can get pretty complicated pretty quick, especially when there are roommates, relatives, spouses, landlords, or tenants involved. In general, you are not responsible for another person’s bill unless you were legally married at the time. So if your boyfriend, your mother, your landlord, or your tenant did not pay their bill, that is not your problem. If, however, gas or electric service was used, and there was no official customer of record, the company should attempt to collect from the property owner or the leaseholders. Depending on the size of the bill, and the circumstances, the company may be willing to write it off, you may be willing to pay it, or you may need to get help from CUB, the ICC or legal aid.
I lived at that address, but not at that time
This is a great example of how “the devil is in the details.” Perhaps you know you lived somewhere, and you know you had an unpaid bill when you moved out, but you are surprised to discover that what you thought was a couple of hundred dollars has somehow turned into a couple thousand. To be sure, late fees do add up, but it pays to verify the dates of service. If you know, you moved out in April, and the utility says the bill is for service through October, that’s 6 extra months worth of charges that you can dispute. New technology has largely eliminated this problem, but it is not uncommon to see this come up with older bills. Unfortunately, this is not covered by any specific utility regulations. If you can come up with proof of when you did and did not live at the address, the company will often work with you.
I was under 18 at that time
This is a huge red flag, and there is no legal gray area here - utility accounts cannot be created in the name of a minor, and nobody is responsible for any services rendered when they were a minor. Period! If you were underage during the dates in question, the company should write the charges off upon receipt of age verification documents. They should not ask you for any information about anyone who lived at the address or asks you to name anyone who may have used your information. You definitely should not pay it, or have anyone else pay it, especially a financial assistance program. Save their money for a different situation. If the company gives you any trouble whatsoever, file a complaint with CUB or the ICC immediately.
I do owe this amount, but I just don’t have it
If the bill is legitimate, your options are limited. But don’t lose hope. The company is allowed to deny new service until the balance is paid, but they are not required to. If you have housing at stake, let them know your situation and see if they will accept a partial payment with installments on the balance. If you already have an active utility account, you have a right to a formal payment arrangement, and the repayment terms are regulated. If you are not an active customer, you do not need the company to put you on a payment plan officially. Just pay as much as you can, when you can, until it is paid off. The company will never not take your money.
Can I get financial assistance on this kind of thing?
Most programs only provide funds to assist with current utility service - not to pay old debts. If an old debt has been added to your current account, it might be covered, if you meet the rest of the program’s eligibility criteria. In most cases, however, energy assistance funds from the LIHEAP program cannot be applied to an old bill. Programs funded directly by the utilities, such as Peoples Gas Share the Warmth, and other agencies, like Salvation Army, almost always follow the same policy. That is why it’s so important to make sure your bill is accurate.
Can I file bankruptcy on utility debt?
Utility debt can be discharged or reorganized through bankruptcy. If your service has been disconnected, it will be reconnected once a bankruptcy is filed. However, the utility will also require a sizeable deposit up front - usually 25% of the amount that was outstanding. In some cases, this amount is just as unaffordable as the original debt, so the bankruptcy is no help. You should talk to a bankruptcy lawyer about this if you think it is an option.
Can I have someone else get a utility account at my address?
An applicant for utility service does not have to live at the service address. Normally, the utility company asks for a copy of a lease or mortgage, but this is not a legal requirement. The only reason a utility in Illinois can deny service to someone is if that individual owes them money under their own name. So even if there are unpaid bills for service at the property, the utility company cannot deny an account to an applicant who submits the correct identification, regardless of where they live. If the company suspects that you are avoiding payment, they may request additional documentation. This can also make it complicated - or impossible - to apply for energy assistance, for reasons that are too hard to explain here. So although this is a valid option, it usually isn’t the best one.
I think I might owe something, but I’m not sure
If you are looking to tie up loose ends from your past, you can definitely call the gas or electric company and ask them if they have any unpaid bills associated with you. If they say they do, everything I said above applies! However, beware: utility companies sell debts to collection agencies and write them off in different ways. But they can pop up again if you do become a customer at a new address. The law requires public utilities to keep their uncollectible debts to a minimum because all ratepayers subsidize these costs. So once you are in their system in the present day, they must cross-reference your information with their uncollected debt lists. If they do get a match, they will let you know by adding it to your bill, at which point...everything I said above applies!
This information is posted as a public service by Illinois Legal Aid Online and its partners. Its purpose is to inform people of their legal rights and obligations. Talk to a lawyer if you have questions about how this information applies to you.