How can thousands of customer avoid shut-offs as Pennsylvania's ban on utility shut-offs end?By Royce Jones

HARRISBURG (KDKA) – The State Public Utility Commission’s ban on service shut-offs during the COVID-19 pandemic ends Thursday.

While the ban has ended, the utility companies say they understand the financial hardships people are now facing and they’re urging customers to give them a call and set up a payment plan in order to keep their services active.

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Nearly 900,000 residential accounts are at risk of being shut off, according to an estimate from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. These at-risk households owe nearly $860 million and that number continues to grow. According to the PUC, the best way to pay what customers owe and avoid a shut-off is to call and ask for help.

“If you’re behind on your bill, pick up your phone and call your utility company right now,” said Dollar Energy CEO Chad Quinn.

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Quinn says their phone lines continue to ring with customers calling for help. But this spring, they’re seeing bills with bigger balances.

“The average amount to either stop someone’s termination or services is about 40% higher than it’s been in previous years,” said Quinn.

The Duquesne Light Company already sent notices out. Billing and revenue manager Katie Scholl says about 50,000 customers are at risk.

“We don’t want to turn people’s service off,” said Scholl. “We want to connect them to the right assistance program for them. There are grants available through LIHEAP, through the Dollar Energy Fund. We have our customer assistance program for income-qualified customers.”

There are several options for customers available both locally and nationally.

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Those include:

“It is very concerning. And it’s scary. So we’re here to help connect people and direct people,” President and CEO of United Way Southwestern Pennsylvania Bobbi Watt Geer said.

United Way suggests calling the utility companies first because some might be providing their own assistance.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Dollar Energy Fund, for example, have programs where the organizations will send a check straight to your provider covering some or all of the cost.

United Way is helping people connect with these opportunities through their 211 number, whose navigators have seen a 50% increase in call volume over the past year.

Utility companies are also offering plans to address overdue balances.

The PUC was able to extend those plans, which will now give customers 1-5 years to pay their balance off depending on income.

There is one thing customers need to be vigilant of, however, and that is scammers.

According to a spokesperson for West Penn Power, scammers will tell customers they can pay off an overdue balance with a gift card. The spokesperson says that companies do not accept pre-paid cards and any call asking for immediate payment is a scam.

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However, the best way remains to contact your utility company and work out a payment plan.