Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Life As A Deadbeat

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Aug. 25, 2011]  © 2011

As a Social Security-collecting 63-year-old, I really thought it was not too much to hope for that I could finish my life without ever being classified as a deadbeat.  

But that dream was crushed on July 5 when the City of San Diego Water Department changed to a new billing service incongruously called Customer Care Solutions.  Cleverly employing a no-cost non-tech system of Do-It-Yourself Data Conversion, they required customers paying on-line to re-enter all of their billing information (including bank account data) and be assigned new account numbers. 

I feared there could be problems when after some three hours over as many days, I was only able to create my new account by ignoring their instructions.  I’ve paid all my bills on-line for years and paid my first water bill on the new system on July 14, printing a confirmation.  Much to my dismay, some  two weeks later I received a non-payment notice in the mail adding that my water service was about to be histoire.  This was especially disconcerting given that it was now August.  We may not be much on hygiene, but we do care about landscaping.

Checking my new water services account on-line, I couldn’t immediately ascertain the problem as it only shows the last four digits of my checking account, all of which were correct.   My bank account had twenty times the amount needed to pay the bill plus overdraft protection.  I could only assume I had somehow, for the first time ever, dropped a digit in the account number.  But then, I am old.

When I dialed the customer service number the next morning at the precise time they opened, wait time was already thirty minutes.  But eventually I was connected to a customer service rep whom I’ll call Cranky Troll (not her real name) who confirmed that not only had I been charged a $25 penalty but as with all water scofflaws, only payment in cash or money order would now be accepted at one of their regional payment centers; no over-the-phone credit card payments allowed.  I even appealed to Cranky Troll’s supervisor, saying that surely thirty-eight years of meticulously on-time payments from the same address should count for something?

In a word:  no. 

In fact, she warned, should I ever “bounce another check” to them, I’ll need to post a significant deposit to continue to get water services.  I now have Official Deadbeat Status.

In that case, I said, since I have no idea why this payment didn’t go through, I’d like to revert to paper bills.  Sorry, she says, she’s not authorized to do that.  She is only authorized to annoy the bejesus out of customers.  OK, that second line is mine.

A wad of cash in hand, I headed to my regional payment center, a Payday Loan place, only to find a sign on the door saying, “Back in 30 minutes.”  But this allowed me to visit with the person ahead of me in line, a fellow  water reprobate clutching the same blue slip and having an identical story: account was a bear to set up, couldn’t figure out why payment didn’t go through.  She had tried calling  at noon only to get a recording saying “don’t even bother holding.” 

Now one might think that once one had handed over money at the authorized payment center, the water gods would be appeased.  But one would be wrong.  You have not paid until you call them back and tell them you have paid.  No call, no payment.  One marvels at the sheer brilliance of such exquisite inefficiency.  However by the time I got home, the (Anti)Customer (Un)Caring (Non)Solutions line only rang busy – for the rest of the day.  And the next.  Ultimately, I got through to a report-your-payment recording, but while I was waiting on my land line, I entertained myself on my cell phone repeat-dialing their Customer Service Survey number (619-515-3515) cheerfully giving the customer service reps the lowest grade of  1 (minus ten wasn’t available).  I’m hoping they won’t realize that 240 of their rock bottom ratings are mine.

Meanwhile, the Payday Loan lady, while happy to see so many new faces and for the boon to her business (she charged me to pay the bill beside the $25 fine) commented that if it were her water bill, she’d revert to paper bills and pay by check.  That so sounds like a plan. 

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