Consumer Frequently Asked Questions
What does the Office of Public Counsel do for Consumers?
- How does OPC represent consumers when utilities seek rate increases?
- A utility cannot increase its rates or alter the conditions of service until the Public Service Commission approves the change. The utility must file its application with the PSC and demonstrate that a change is just and reasonable. The OPC investigates the company's filing based on detailed information from the utility and its own research. The OPC's position protects ratepayers' interests for reasonable rates and high service quaility. At trial type evidentiary hearings before the PSC, OPC's attorneys cross-examine the utility's and other adverse witnesses and offer the testimony of OPC's technical experts and other evidence to support the consumers' point of view. When necessary, the office pursues its position by appeal to the circuit and appellate courts.
- Do negotiations and settlements help consumers?
- Once OPC has investigated a case, developed its position and prepared for litigation, the attorneys and experts discuss the case in negotiations with the utlities and other parties to see if the issues presented by the case can be resolved without the expense, time, and uncertainty of an extended hearing....OPC analyzes settlement proposals in light of its investigation and if the based upon a judgment that the settlement is favorable or better for consumers than the likely outcome of the litigation. The PSC must approve settlements.
- How else does OPC work for consumers?
- OPC plays an active role in developing long term energy and telecommunications policies that will bring lower rates for all customers. OPC is also working to ensure that Missouri establishes a Universal Service Fund to provide access to affordable telecommunications services for all customers, including low income customers and those who reside in remote rural high cost areas.
- Will consumers benefit from competition?
- Consumers already have options in choosing their long distance telephone carrier. State and federal government policy groups are making efforts to give customers more utility choices, with freedom to choose the local telephone service. In the future, consumers may have a choice in providers for, natural gas and electric services. The shift to competition in the utility industries should only occur if it furthers Missouri's economic and environmental well-being while bringing lower rates to all consumers. OPC is working to ensure that competition provides all consumers, including low income residential customers, with opportunities to realize savings while increasing consumer choice of services.
- Does participation in a public hearing matter?
- Yes! Public hearings provide a chance for you to comment on utility regulatory policies, the wisdom, need, and affordability of proposed rate changes, as well as quality of service provided by the utility. Your voice, joined with that of other citizens, makes a difference. We welcome and encourage your participation and comments.
- What is the "No Call" law and how can you reduce telemarketing calls at home?
The "No Call" law allows Missourians to reduce unwanted telemarketing calls made to their homes by signing up for the No Call List, which is managed by the Attorney General’s Office. There is no cost to get on the list.
The state law prohibits telemarketers from calling households on the No Call list, with some exceptions written into the law. Consumers who believe a telemarketer has violated the law can file a complaint.
Please visit webpage of Attorney General's Office to get more information about how to sign up for the no call list and file a complaint.
- What is slamming and what should you do when you are slammed?
It is important that you check your phone bill very carefully. If you see charges from a long distance phone company that you do not choose, you may have been a victim of "slamming".
Slamming can occur several ways, none of them legal. You may receive a call from a long distance telephone company that is not your company of choice. They will try to get you to switch over to their services by offering you lower rates, free phone minutes, or in some cases a check. You may tell the company representative that you are not interested in switching, but you soon find out that your carrier has been switched anyway. In some instances, you will receive a letter from your current long distance company telling you that they are no longer your carrier and they wish to confirm that this was your choice. You may also receive a "welcome package" in the mail. This will include a letter and information from a carrier welcoming you to a service that you did not request. In other instances, you may not notice the change for several months during which time you will be paying your monthly long distance charges to the company who slammed you.
Another slamming technique, is to get you to fill out an entry form at the mall for a free trip or a new car...the form will ask for your name, address and phone number so that they can contact you if you win. On the bottom of the form, in very small print, it may say that by signing the form you are agreeing to switch your long distance phone service to XYZ company.
If you become a victim of telephone slamming, you should follow the following steps to correct the situation:
- Immediately call your local telephone company to report the problem. They will switch you back to your original carrier and credit your account for any switching fees that may have been placed on your account. While you have your local phone company on the line you can request that they put a freeze on your long distance carrier to help protect you from becoming a victim of slamming again.
- FCC regulations stipulate that you must pay no more for your long distance calls than you would have for equivalent service provided by your chosen carrier. In some instances your long distance carrier will re-rate calls for you. If they will not do it for you, you may be able to calculate what the calls should have cost you and deduct the excessive amount from your bill. If you are billed for long distance through your local phone company, ask them how they want you to handle the billing.
- File a complaint with the FCC, against the company that slammed you. Write to:
FCC Common Carrier Bureau
Mail Stop 1600A2
Washington, DC 20554
or Call toll-free: 1-888-CALLFCC (888-225-5322).
You can find out more information on the FCC website.
- What is cramming and what should you do when you are a victim of cramming?
Cramming means adding charges to your telephone bill for services you did not knowingly authorize, such as voice mail service, 900# service or calling cards. Charges can be added to your account because someone filled out an entry form with your name and phone number in hopes of winning a free prize. In small text, at the bottom of the form, it usually says that by filling out the form you authorize that company to add a service that is billed through your local phone company.
It is very important that you check every page of your phone bill to make sure that you are not charged for extras that should not be there. These charges may be difficult to identify because they are sometimes listed just as a "non basic" charge instead of itemized. If you want to find out what these charges are, call your local phone company.
If you are a victim of cramming:
- Notify you local phone company to advise them that you are disputing the unauthorized charges.
- Notify the Company who has placed the charges on your account to request that your account be cleared of all charges.
- File a complaint with the FCC, against the Company that added these charges to your account.
- What is the Cold Weather Rule and how to obtain cold weather assistance?
The Missouri Public Service Commission's Cold Weather Rule, designed to help customers with heat-related utility bills. The Cold Weather Rule has been a part of the Commission's rules and regulations since 1977. Since its inception, the rule has helped over one million needy customers maintain heat-related service during the winter. The Cold Weather Rule relates to any residential gas or electric service that is necessary for the proper function and operation of heating equipment. Electric or gas service provided by municipalities, electric cooperatives and propane delivered by truck are not covered by this rule.
The Cold Weather Rule allows customers to maintain service under certain payment terms, restricts deposits, ensures customers are given adequate notification of a proposed discontinuance, encourages customers who can't pay their utility bills to seek financial assistance through available sources, provides special provisions for the state's elderly and handicapped and prohibits the disconnection of heat-related service when temperatures are predicted to fall below 30 degrees.
The Cold Weather Rule contains provisions for those customers who can't pay their utility bill but want to maintain existing service. Under the rule that customer must:
- Contact the utility company and express an inability to pay the bill in full;
- Apply for energy assistance;
- Provide income information if requested;
- Make a minimum payment; and
- Enter into a payment agreement.
The Cold Weather Rule requires the utility to first offer a 12 month budget plan. If a customer states an inability to pay a budget plan amount, and that inability to pay is due to pre-existing arrears, the utility and customer may enter into an agreement which allows the payment of those arrears beyond 12 months. A customer may also request a payment agreement which allows payment of current bills, plus arrears, in fewer than 12 months. The utility is required to confirm all payment agreements in writing unless the extension granted the customer does not exceed two weeks.
The Cold Weather Rule also contains a temperature provision. A utility company cannot shut off service on a day when the National Weather Service has issued a local forecast between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., for the following 24 hours, predicting the temperature will drop below 30 degrees.
The Cold Weather Rule requires utility companies to provide certain types of notification prior to a discontinuance of service during the time the rule is in effect. Prior to a discontinuance of service, the utility company must:
- Mail a notice to the customer 10 days before the date it intends to shut off service;
- Attempt to contact the customer within 96 hours before the shut off;
- Attempt to contact the customer immediately preceding discontinuance; and
- Leave notice at the customer's premises at the time of the discontinuance.
In all of these contacts, the utility company is required to explain the provisions of the rule, including the method of calculating the minimum required payment and state the availability of financial assistance from the Division of Family Services. The utility must also list other sources of financial assistance from any agency which notifies the utility company that they provide the assistance.
This rule contains special notification procedures prior to a discontinuance of service for the elderly and handicapped who have filled out a form provided by the utility company. A utility company is required to contact those registered elderly and handicapped individuals prior to a discontinuance of service. This contact must initially include two or more phone call attempts and a mailing to both the customer and a social agency or other party listed on the individual's registration form. The utility company must also make a personal contact with the registered customer, or some family member at the premises above the age of 15, before a discontinuance of service. In all of these contacts, the utility company is required to inform the customer of the provisions of service under this rule as well as the availability of financial assistance from the Division of Family Services. The utility must also list other sources of financial assistance from any agency which notifies the utility company that they provide the assistance.
While utility companies are required to comply with the requirements of this rule, some companies go beyond what the Cold Weather Rule requires. Customers should contact their utility company to see what, if any, additional measures the company has taken to provide heat-related services to customers during the winter months.
Source: PSC News FY-96-64