BAD INFORMATION. Threats to cut off electricity. Inadequately trained customer-service representatives with attytood.

That's what some hapless customers of Philadelphia Electric Co. have endured in the aftermath of an October changeover in the billing system that has wreaked havoc with some accounts.

Thousands of customers - between 10,000 and 16,000, depending on which company spokesman you ask - have been victimized by the problems created by the transition.

The company is very, very sorry, of course, and is working to fix the foul-ups.

"We apologize for any problems that have happened," said spokesman Cameron Kline, emphasizing that only 1 percent of the company's 1.6 million customers were affected.

Small consolation if you're one of them - like Donna McLaughlin.

In November, Peco notified McLaughlin that her electricity would be shut off if she didn't immediately pay $1,473.20 in arrears that she'd been paying off by the month.


Because her last bills were late, and that violated her payment agreement, she was told.

McLaughlin protested that her bill was automatically deducted from her checking account, and had been for a year and a half.

"I said, 'You guys take it out of my account. If you didn't take it out, that's not my fault.' "

McLaughlin got nowhere and was told her electricity would be shut off if she didn't pay by Nov. 17 - which was seven days away.

She said she had no choice but to borrow from a retirement account and pay the bill.

And that, she thought, was that.

But it wasn't.

Because her next bill showed that Peco hadn't applied the $1,400 to her bill. Instead, the payment was designated as a "credit" which would be used to pay future monthly bills.

Her account showed the $1,400 still outstanding and accruing finance charges.

Huh? you say.

That's what McLaughlin said when she called the company. Over and over and over again, to no avail.

"I said, 'Send me back my money, then.' Why should Peco earn interest on my money, plus charge me interest on a past-due bill?"

The company rep she spoke to refused to pay off her bill or refund her money.

Peco rebuts McLaughlin's claim that she was on an automatic-payment plan - but doesn't dispute the "error" over her payment.

"Due to an internal billing problem, it was showing that there was a credit that exists on paper when indeed, her account was paid in full," Kline said.

A supervisor called McLaughlin on Friday to say the situation had been resolved and her bill was paid.


It seems to me that when

you're dealing with a necessity such as electricity and making a transition that you know has created problems for other companies - which Peco knew - you ought to be better-prepared for the inevitable.

Especially when your recourse in a billing dispute is to threaten to shut off the power.

A warning letter to customers in advance of the changeover would have been nice.

A troubleshooting team designated to deal with problems created by the switch would have been smart.

Now, the company is playing catch-up, trying to identify the customers who've been victimized by the switch.

If you have been, call 800-494-4000.

Hope you have better luck than McLaughlin, who's irate over what the company put her through.

"I think the way I was treated was horrible," she said.

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