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Consumer advocates call billing practices 'unfair'

September 21, 2000

Consumer advocates call billing practices 'unfair'



By LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

Janice WineHALFWAY - Janice Wine recently was billed for $50 worth of propane gas she didn't use.

Countless others pay for long-distance service even when they don't make a single toll call.

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Credit card users pay annual fees for the privilege of carrying cards, even if they never use them.

It may seem unfair, but it's all perfectly legal, consumer advocates say.

It also demonstrates why, especially as more utilities become free of government regulation, consumers need to be careful about the contracts they sign.

Some consumers may be confused by the array of choices they have in utility providers, said Maryland People's Counsel Michael Travieso, who represents consumer interests.

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Wine, 79, of Halfway, was confused and outraged when she got a bill for $50 from Thompson's Gas in June. She had already paid the Boonsboro company $86 that year for propane gas to power her kitchen stove.

Wine didn't use much propane because she gets Meals on Wheels three days a week.

Thompson's Gas, like many other gas suppliers, charges customers a minimum of $10 a month to fill and service tanks, said President Randy Thompson.

It's a charge that is necessary to cover the costs of providing the equipment, delivering the gas and offering free service calls, he said.

The minimum charge was increased from $8 a month to $10 a month this year because the market price of propane has increased.

"We've tried to set fees that are reasonable," he said.

Wine doesn't agree.

"They as good as said I wouldn't have gas if I didn't pay the bill," she said.

Neither does Cheryl A. Seacrist, who went to bat for her longtime family friend by writing to Thompson's Gas and got her bill credited for $16.

"I just felt like it was so very unfair," said Seacrist, of Hagerstown.

Thompson said the fee is a necessary evil that's spelled out in every contract.

A less expensive alternative for someone who doesn't use much propane is to buy and refill a tank similar to one used in a gas grill, he said.

Situations like Wine's are bound to become more common as customers who were used to having the government keep a check on prices now have to wade through the complex array of choices themselves, Travieso said.

"Customers are going to be more confused," he said.

The problem was confirmed by a recent survey on long-distance service conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons.

Fewer than half of those surveyed by AARP said they search for the best price for long-distance calls. Among people over 65, only one-third shop around.

Many people don't realize that the "basic" plans are usually the most expensive, AARP found.

"Older consumers generally pay higher rates for their long-distance service because many are paying 'basic rates.' Learning about the different long-distance calling plans and choosing the plan that is right for you can put more money in your pocket," said Jane King, manager of AARP's consumer unit.

Travieso said the best thing to do is shop around and carefully read contracts to understand what you're paying for.

The Washington County Commission on Aging can help people decipher information about utility companies and choices, said Julia Burke, director of information and assistance.

But the decision rests with the consumer.

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