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Adventures in Customer Service

So there's a Houstonian who, beguiled by the siren call of online billing, signed up to pay his gas bill electronically.

He logged on to the CenterPoint Energy Web site and used his debit card for automatic payment. He checked the site each month, where the bills were marked with the notation "paid."

But "paid" apparently doesn't mean to CenterPoint what it means to the rest of the English-speaking world. Debit cards don't work in their system. So the guy's gas was cut off, and an $80 fee was charged to reconnect it.

Which led to a great customer-service conversation, which luckily he recorded:

Customer: Why don't you guys just make it easier for the world by firstly stating that you can't use a debit card and secondly, if a payment doesn't go through, indicating it on the Web page?… Will it ever not say "paid" under "status" if I submit a payment?

Customer Rep: Mmmm, no. It will say "paid," even if it didn't go through.

C: So you guys are telling me that I can't rely on the online system to know whether I paid my bill?

CR: Not alone, no.

C: But you guys could, if you wanted to, when the payment doesn't go through, the status could say "denied."

CR:"Delayed" or "denied" or something.

C:But you have chosen not to do that for some reason.

CR: You know, I am thinking, a while back…it used to say something like "canceled" or "denied" or something.

C:But it doesn't do that anymore?

CR: It doesn't do that anymore.

The CenterPoint folks, being a monopoly and all, wouldn't waive the reconnection fee. When the guy went by to restore service, the customer told him the cancellation was due to a foul-up in the online system. "You ain't got to say no more," the worker said. "I've had so much problems with that crap."

And not just professionally, either: "My wife did the same thing," he said.

Rock the Vote

It wasn't soon after early voting began in Texas that complaints started to roll in. E-mail messages and phone calls about straight-ticket Democratic votes mysteriously being switched by the electronic machines to Republican votes. Conspiracy theories flew.

Susan Gates, executive director of the Harris County Democratic Party, doesn't think there was a conspiracy -- "If they were going to manipulate it, they would do it where it would look like you were voting correctly but you weren't," she says -- but that doesn't mean things went smoothly.

The electronic machines are "not user-friendly," she says, adding that "it is very easy to make mistakes on it, not really knowing what you are doing. People panic. They don't always ask for help," she says.

One e-mail going around: "My 88-year-old mother voted yesterday at a library in San Antonio. She entered the booth, punched the machine for Kerry and Bush's name appeared as the one she voted for. She did that three times and each time Bush's name came up."

Court Koenning, executive director of the Harris County GOP, says there's no evidence to the claims. "The Democrats are trying to set up a legal issue because they don't have the votes," he says. "That's sad, but that's in their handbook."

In case you are worried about all this, the spokesman for Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman says there is just nothing to it.

"I don't want to slam anyone in particular, but when individuals who are active in political parties get together and start talking, a lot of times rumors become myths and myths become a little more toward fiction, and then fiction becomes fact," says David Beirne.

So that's two of three officials saying no problem -- the head of the county GOP and the county's official vote-counter, Kaufman. Who is, well, a Republican.

So stop worrying, willya?

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