This month… for once… we were actually looking forward to the arrival of our electric bill. Why? Because since the first day of January we have been aggressively trying to conserve as much electricity as we could. Thanks to the extensive use of our wood stove we have been able to heat almost all of our hot water on top of the stove and in the reservoir. The hot water heater has been on only for brief periods. I have also been using the wood stove for all of the cooking and baking for every meal, and I haven’t used the electric range at all since December. We already have the energy-saving light bulbs in all of our lights, and we’ve been cutting our energy use down consistently month to month. We were understandably curious to receive the monthly bill so we could see just how much energy we had managed to conserve.
Yesterday the bill arrived in the mail, and unfortunately it was a huge disappointment. Not only were our usage figures not down… they were slightly UP from last month. Considering the extreme measures we had taken, the energy use figures were ridiculous. I was just about to call the electric company to ask what was going on… when I noticed something on the bill that I hadn’t seen there before… the word “ESTIMATED.” So my first question to the company representative was why was our bill marked “ESTIMATED”… and I was told that the meter reader was unable to actually read our meter this month. Because of what they called “adverse weather conditions,” the electric company had decided to compensate by estimating how much energy they thought we had used during the month of January. For some unknown reason they decided to bill us for more energy than we had used either last month or the same month last year. The electric company representative told me not to worry that we had been overcharged… and that when the meter reader comes and actually reads the meter next month, all of the figures will be sorted out.
But it was something else that happened during this call that disturbed me. When I first told the representative that I had a question about my bill, she told me that before she could talk to me, I needed to give her my Social Security number and my date of birth. Well… we don’t give out our Social Security numbers or private information unless it is absolutely necessary, so I said I didn’t feel comfortable giving out that information. The representative then said that if I preferred, she could positively identify me with my date of birth and driver’s license number. I said I didn’t want to give that information either and asked why that kind of security was necessary when all I wanted was some general information about the bill. Her answer was that it was a new federal regulation and that because of terrorism and identity theft concerns, the government now requires that all electric company representatives positively verify the customer’s identity at the beginning of each support call. She said that the electric company can’t require that customers give them a Social Security number, but they can (and do) require that customers give them two out of the three possibilities of Social Security number, date of birth, or driver’s license number.
I continued to refuse to give any one of those three pieces of information, and the representative said she was breaking the rule to talk to me at all, even though my question had been very general and did not involve any specific information about our account. Before I hung up, I asked the representative how my Social Security number, date of birth, or driver’s license number would help them to identify me because I knew I had never given them any of this information in the first place (and that they had never asked for it before). She admitted that it actually would serve no purpose at the moment, because the new regulation had just gone into effect, but that even as we were speaking the federal government was updating the electric company’s databases, and after the update was complete they WOULD have access to the identity information, even if I still refuse to give it to them.
So that means that the federal government… without our consent… is sharing our personal identity information with electric companies around the United States. And if they’re doing that with electric companies, they are probably doing the same with telephone companies, gas companies, and other utilities as well. We are constantly being warned to keep up our guard against identity theft… to be very careful about giving out our personal information… and to never give out our Social Security number unless it is absolutely necessary.
I wish we could trust the federal government to show the same restraint.