Seniors Legal Rights
Telephone, gas, and electricity services quickly come to mind when we think of utilities. Utilities customers now face more questions than ever as utilities increasingly compete for their local and long distance business, make available new services, and introduce new technologies such as wireless telephone service. This section highlights some of the most common questions and problems of utility customers, and gives other places consumers may turn for more information or assistance.
Inside Wire Insurance
Several local telephone companies sell “inside wire insurance.” Inside wire insurance is an unregulated and optional service. Telephone companies claim that repairs to the wiring inside your home may be costly if you do not have this insurance.
When deciding whether you need this service, keep in mind that damage to inside wires is very rare. In the event you have a problem with your inside wiring, an electrician or other independent repair person may be able to repair it for less than the phone company would charge. If you live in an apartment, it is likely the landlord is responsible to repair any wiring problems. If you are already paying for the insurance, it can be canceled by a simple phone call to your local telephone company.
Reduced Cost Telephone Service
There are federal and state programs available to help low income seniors reduce the cost of their telephone service. TAP, Lifeline, and Link-Up are programs designed to either off-set the price of setting up new telephone service or to reduce the cost of monthly telephone service. Each program offers a different benefit, and each has different eligibility requirements. If you have questions about these programs or would like an application, contact your local telephone company or the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission at (651) 296-0406 or (800) 657-3782.
Telephone Services for the Communication Impaired
If you or someone you know uses a teletypewriter device (TTY), you may want to take advantage of Minnesota Relay Service (MRS) to make calls between TTYs and standard telephones. TTY callers dial the MRS, give the requested information, and the operator will place the call. The operator will read the TTY-user’s words aloud to the voice-user and type the voice-user’s words to the TTY-user. All calls are confidential. The service operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To place a call through the MRS, dial 7-1-1 or (800) 627-3529.
Blocking 900 Numbers
As a telephone customer, you have the right to block unwanted “pay-per-call” services on your telephone. Pay-per-call services are usually charged on a per-minute basis and can cost as much as $9.00 or more per minute. These services come in a variety of forms, including 900 numbers and international numbers. You can get 900 numbers blocked free of charge by contacting your local phone company. You can also request blocking of all international calls, but a small fee may apply. It is important to know that your local and/or long distance telephone service cannot be disconnected for nonpayment of pay-per-call charges.
If your long distance or local telephone service provider is switched to another company without your knowledge, you may have been “slammed.” You may not know you were slammed until you get a phone bill from a different company often charging higher rates. You can protect against slamming by calling your local telephone company to request that your account include a “PIC freeze” and other consumer-protection features such as a third-party billing block. A PIC freeze prevents your phone company from changing your long distance company without your express approval. A third-party billing block prevents your local phone company from acting as a “billing company” and adding another company’s charges to your phone bill. These features will ensure that your long distance carrier cannot be changed without your written or verbal consent, and it discourages slamming because carriers other than your chosen carrier cannot bill you for services by placing their charges on your local telephone bill. If you think you have been slammed, call your preferred company and ask to be switched back. Request that any unauthorized charges and switching fees be refunded to you. You should also file a complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
If you are being billed for services not directly related to making local or long distance calls, and you never ordered the services, you may have been “crammed.” Crammers rely on confusing telephone bills to trick consumers into paying for services they did not authorize. These fraudulent charges come from third parties who submit their charges through your local telephone company. The charges are often described on your telephone bill in general terms such as “service fee,” “service charge,” and “other fees.” Take time to carefully review your telephone bill. If you see evidence of cramming, contact your local telephone company right away to cancel the services and have the illegal charges removed from your bill. You should also file a complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
Other Phone Service Options and Concerns
Technological advances have also given customers increased options for their telecommunications services. Consumers may now obtain service from the cable company, choose to use their wireless phones exclusively, and even place calls over their broadband lines using special equipment and VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, technology. While the service may function essentially the same as traditional, landline telephone service, consumers should note that cable, wireless, and VoIP service are not subject to the same telephone service standards and regulations. Consumers should also consider whether their telephone service will function in case of emergencies and power outages, and whether enhanced 9-1-1 (E911) technology, which allows operators to automatically identify a caller’s number and location, is supported.
Cell (Wireless) Phones
Wireless telephone service is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide. In Minnesota, many senior citizens now carry cell phones for convenience and/or safety. Entering into a cell phone contract is a commitment that should be taken seriously. If you are considering a cell phone, contact the Attorney General’s Office to obtain a copy of our Wireless Phones publication. This handout will help you make an educated decision before you sign on the dotted line.
Disconnection of Utility Services
You cannot be disconnected from utility service unless you first receive a written notice. The notice must tell you the date disconnection will occur, the reason, and the action you can take to avoid it. The notice must be written in easy-to-understand language and be given at least five days prior to disconnection (excluding Sundays and legal holidays).
Your utility service cannot be shut off for failure to pay for non-utility service like inside wire insurance, appliance repair, or protection plans. If you have questions regarding disconnection of utility services, contact the Consumer Affairs Office of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission at (651) 296-0406 or (800) 657-3782.
Cold Weather Rule
The Minnesota Legislature developed the Cold Weather Rule to protect a tenant (or homeowner) from having his or her heat source permanently disconnected in winter (October 15 through April 15) if they are unable to pay their utility bills. The Cold Weather Rule is implemented by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The Cold Weather Rule does not prohibit shut-offs but does provide that a utility may not disconnect and must reconnect a customer whose household income is at or below 50 percent of the state median income if the customer enters into and makes reasonably timely payments under a mutually acceptable payment agreement. Customers whose household income is above 50 percent of the state median income also have the right to a payment agreement to prevent disconnection or get reconnected. The Cold Weather Rule applies to all natural gas and electric utilities; it does not apply to delivered fuels, such as fuel oil, propane, and wood.
The Cold Weather Rule requires a utility company to notify its customers in writing before it disconnects their heat. The notice must be in easy- to-understand language and must contain the amount due, the date of the scheduled disconnection, and a summary of rights and responsibilities. A regulated public utility must notify a customer of disconnection at least seven working days in advance. An unregulated utility—such as a cooperative or municipal utility—must notify a customer of disconnection at least 15 days in advance. A disconnection generally may not happen:
- on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday;
- on a holiday or the day before a holiday;
- while an appeal is pending; or
- while utility offices are closed.
A utility company must enter into payment agreements all year round, not just during the winter months. Any residential customer, regardless of income or account status, may qualify for a payment agreement.
If you receive a disconnection notice or you know you cannot afford your utility bills, you must work directly with your utility company to set up a payment plan. Your utility company must consider your financial circumstances, as well as any “extenuating” circumstances, when it makes your payment plan. If you agree to a payment plan, you must keep it. If your circumstances change and you can no longer afford your payment plan, you must contact your utility company and negotiate a new payment plan.
During the winter months, the Cold Weather Rule guarantees a reduced payment plan for consumers who meet certain guidelines. If you receive energy assistance or your household earns less than 50 percent of the state’s median income, a public utility company cannot ask you to pay more than ten percent of your monthly household income toward current and past utility bills. A cooperative or municipal utility can ask you to pay more than ten percent of your monthly household income, but it must consider your financial circumstances. Household income includes the income of all residents in your household but does not include any amount received for energy assistance.
Your Right to Appeal
If you and your utility company cannot agree on a reasonable payment plan, you have the right to appeal.
If you are a customer of a public utility, you may appeal to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. You must ask your utility company for an appeal form. Once you receive the appeal form, you must send it to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission within seven working days. After it receives your written appeal, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will review it and issue a decision within 20 working days. During the appeal process, your utility company cannot disconnect your heat; if you have already been disconnected, your utility company must reconnect your service. If your appeal is denied, your utility company must notify you in writing at least seven days before it disconnects your service.
If you are the customer of a cooperative or municipal utility, you must appeal directly to your utility company before you are disconnected.
If you have questions about the Cold Weather Rule, contact your local utility or call the Consumer Affairs Office of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission at (651) 296-0406 or (800) 657-3782. If you meet low income guidelines, you may also be eligible for energy assistance funds. Your utility company or the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission can help you get in touch with these programs.
Energy Assistance Program
You may be able to receive help paying your winter utility bills through the Energy Assistance Program (EAP). This program considers income and family size when providing assistance with winter utility bills. One- or two-person households are given special consideration.
Applications for assistance are accepted between October 1 and April 15 of each year. You can mail in an application or have a home visit. If you are eligible for energy assistance, you are automatically eligible for home weatherization assistance.
Minnesota residents also may obtain an application and more information by calling (800) 657-3710 to locate the local agency serving their county.