Columbia Gas: Auto-Terminating Your Account!

So, our new apartment (which we moved to in September) does not have utilities included, so for the first time I had to start an account with a gas company: Columbia Gas. I initiated the account online before moving, and received a bill in late September for the initiation fee and the first 4-days of gas usage. Then I never heard from them again and never received any subsequent bills. I didn’t worry about it because Melissa, who has dealt with Columbia before, said it was pretty normal for bills to come sporadically—even sometimes 2-3 months apart.

Then, yesterday, we got a letter from our leasing office telling us that they had paid two gas bills for us and that we needed to contact Columbia and put the account in our name right away. Needless to say, I was a bit confused. From what I could tell, Columbia had stopped sending bills to me and started sending them to the leasing office (with the same service address and meter number that had been on my singular bill back in September).

Figuring this was just some honest mistake, I called Columbia Gas this morning to get it straightened out (after leaving a check at the leasing office with a polite note explaining that the gas company had screwed up). Surprise of surprises, they had canceled my account. They closed my account without my consent, and—furthermore—never bothered to tell me.

Even worse was their reason: According to Columbia Gas, I called them on September 20 and asked them to terminate my account.

There are two very serious problems with this story. The first is that I never terminated my account (why would I close an account four days after moving into an apartment and starting it?). The second is that I have never called Columbia Gas for any reason before this morning. You may recall, I initiated the account online.

I have had only three transactions of any kind with Columbia Gas in my entire life. First, I initiated the account (online). Second, I paid my first bill (by mail). Third, I called them this morning to figure out why the hell they stopped sending me bills and started sending them to my leasing office.

The woman I spoke to this morning didn’t seem to believe me, because apparently their ‘system’ said I called to terminate, validated who I was with the last-four-digits of my Social Security Number, and so on. So whoever canceled my account apparently either called Columbia with my info or, more likely, some bureaucratic schmuck at Columbia Gas unilaterally canceled my account for reasons-unknown and fudged the records. I have no idea why somebody would do either of these things, but I can’t come up with any better explanation.

Adding insult to injury, they wanted me to pay another $31 initiation fee. You see, I initiated my account and paid the fee in September, then the company illegally terminated my account, and now that I’m initiating the account again I need to pay another fee! Makes perfect sense!

Had this been, say, my cell-phone provider (AT&T), I would simply close my account (for real) and switch to a competitor. Unfortunately though, the gas company—like the power company—is a state-sanctioned regional monopoly and there is no available alternative. Columbia Gas provides service to my neighborhood, and I either use Columbia Gas or the apartment freezes and Melissa has to stop cooking with anything but the microwave. Nice. So my only recourse, if you can call it that, is to file complaints with various state and local consumer protection agencies stating the simple truth: my Columbia Gas account was terminated unilaterally and illegally by the company without my consent, and no notice of such termination was ever provided to me in writing.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.