Federal officials say bulb mailings already might be illegal

January 11, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

As Maryland lawmakers draft legislation to prevent utilities from mailing customers unsolicited light bulbs and adding the cost to their monthly bills, Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Postal Service officials say the mailings already might be illegal.

United States Code prohibits sending a bill for any merchandise mailed without the "prior expressed request or consent" of the recipient, U.S. Postal Inspector Steve Durst said.

However, when the mailer is a publicly regulated company with an existing business relationship with the recipient, it is unclear whether the law applies, Durst said.

Allegheny Power's legal advisers determined the company did not violate the unordered merchandise regulation when it instituted a 96-cent monthly energy conservation surcharge to cover the mailing of two energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs to each of its Maryland customers, company spokesman Todd Meyers said Thursday.


However, Meyers did not comment on the advisers' reasoning.

Allegheny's bulb mailing and surcharge were aimed at reducing energy consumption in Maryland, and were approved by the state Public Service Commission, an independent state agency that regulates state utilities. The company said it notified customers on their October bills of an "energy conservation surcharge" starting Oct. 3.

General Assembly Counsel Robert Zarnoch said he thought the surcharge was legal because it was not a direct charge for the bulbs, but a program surcharge approved by the Public Service Commission.

Durst said the applicability of the unsolicited merchandise regulation also could depend on the interpretation of prior consent.

"It could be somewhere in the agreements between the customer and the company or the company and the rate commission," Durst said. "You would have to go into all the details of exactly what was put into all those different pages before the regulatory commission and the fine print on the bills."

However, that interpretation of consent seems unrealistic to customers such as Sharie Wiesner, 35, of Hagerstown.

"I don't remember them ever saying they were going to pass that cost on to us," Wiesner said. "Maybe it was on the PSC Web site, but who ever looks at that site? Nobody. Get real."

Wiesner said she already uses compact fluorescent bulbs throughout her home, but was frustrated by the lack of notification and customer input into the program.

On Wednesday, Wiesner took the package of bulbs back to the post office labeled "Return to Sender," with a note tucked inside explaining she didn't think it was right for the company to charge her for something she hadn't ordered.

"I didn't volunteer to be in this program," she said. "That's the bottom line for me."

Also resisting the surcharge is Ron Hovis, 73, of Hagerstown, who asked an Allegheny Power customer service representative to note his opposition on his account.

"I will not be paying that 96 cents a month," Hovis said. "I'm simply going to deduct it when I pay my bill."

Jeffrey Coney, 44, of Hagerstown, said he plans to file a complaint with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service challenging the legality of mailing the bulbs without consent.

The unordered merchandise regulation, Section 3009 of Title 39 of U.S. Code, also prohibits the mailing of unordered merchandise regardless of billing if the merchandise is not clearly marked as a free sample or mailed by a charitable organization soliciting contributions.

"Nobody has really talked about the fact that, according to U.S. federal law and postal regulations, that's illegal," Coney said. "If they attempt to go forward with the surcharge, someone needs to be wearing a pair of handcuffs."

On the Web

U.S. Postal Inspection Service unsolicited merchandise guide


Federal Trade Commission unordered merchandise fact sheet


Text of the law


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