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Lost Power? Get a Refund

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More than 2 million consumers in the Northeast are still without power after weekend snowstorms. But they’re far from powerless when it comes to getting cash back for the inconvenience.

Cable, phone and Internet providers often provide credit as a goodwill gesture when customers can’t access the service due to problems with their network or a more widespread power outage, says Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for advocacy group Consumer Action. Electric and gas companies may also be willing to refund a portion of the service part of your bill, she says. Such credits are typically prorated, based on your monthly bill and the length of time you were without access — meaning someone with say, a $120-per-month cable, phone, and Internet bundle and who was without service for 48 hours might save $8 to $10.

The amount may seem like a small consolation for the inconvenience suffered, and peanuts considering you’ll likely spend a few minutes on hold and then a few more sweet-talking the representative into helping you out. But it’s often still worth it to ask, experts say.

Wait to call until the power has been back on for at least a day. “Typically when there’s a major outage, such as folks in the Northeast have had, the company is going to be focused on restoring service,” says John Breyault, a spokesman for advocacy group the National Consumers League. They’ll be more amenable to talking about refunds once everything is back up and running. Explain how long you’ve been without power, and ask if there’s anything they can offer in terms of a credit on your bill. Be polite – remember, most of these credits are at the customer service rep’s discretion, he says.

A few companies have more generous policies covering the costs of losing power, so it’s worth checking your terms of service and other contracts to see if you’re guaranteed any help. West Coast residents with PG&E, for example, can receive “inconvenience payments” of $25 to $100 if they have been without power for at least 48 hours due to severe storm conditions. Con Edison allows customers to file claims of up to $9,000 for spoiled food, prescription medications and other perishable merchandise ruined by a power outage. The catch: storm-related outages do not apply.

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    • Electric utilities are regulated companies, usually by a state’s public utilities or service commission. Some states may mandate that a utility must make a credit payment to customers when an electric outage is purely the fault of the utility for providing inadequate service. Such credits are usually not given due to acts of God (eg. weather / storms related). However, may be mandated when the utility is deemed by the regulator to have performed poorly during storm restoration efforts. Most state regulators have a thorough review process after all storm restoration efforts are complete. That being said, as a regulated utility, a utility’s customer call rep could not just give a customer a refund because they complain, and it is not their discretion to do so. Such refunds must be ordered by the state’s utility regulator. Moreover, unlike cable or internet service providers who charge a flat fee for your level of service, an electric utility will charge base on usage. The more you use, the more you pay. If the lights are out due to a storm, you aren’t paying for service during that time because you aren’t using electricity.

    • Don’t hold your breath while you wait for Pacific Gas and Electric to pay inconvenience charges or reimburse you for any reason whatsoever. IMHO, these payments are little more than fodder for the public relations mill.

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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