DALLAS — Philip Miller realized he didn’t have enough gas to get to work on Monday morning. After pulling over, he would soon learn he also didn’t have enough money to pay for a fill-up.
"My card got denied at the pump," he said. "I wasn’t going to be able to fill up the gas tank."
The 28-year-old aviation recruiter should have had plenty of money in his account. He didn't because of a massive billing error by Atmos Energy that suddenly drained the checking accounts of thousands of its customers.
On Sunday night, the Dallas-based utility said it accidentally withdrew 10 times what it should have from customers' credit card and checking accounts.
A misplaced decimal point caused the utility to pull $422.50 from Miller’s checking account instead of $42.50. The charge left the single father in the red by more than $100.
“You got to have money to live,” he said. “Everybody can plan for bills, but not when it’s ten times what you’re expecting on a pretty meager utility bill.”
The mistake affected nearly 40,000 customers who rely on the company's automatic bill pay feature.
“I called first thing in the morning, and they said they can’t do anything right now,” said Alan Driggers of Gainesville, who found close to $400 missing from his account. "I understand things happen; my issue is the lack of response.”
As angry customers swamped Atmos’ phone banks and social media pages, the utility admitted mid-morning Monday it had made a big mistake and was rushing to reimburse customers.
“We sincerely apologize for this,” said company spokeswoman Jennifer Ryan.
Atmos is the largest natural gas provider in Texas with 3 million customers spread over eight states.
“It’s shocking,” Ryan said. “We are working with those folks as fast as we can to get their money back.”
The mistake came as the company was already fielding calls and problems from a change in its billing system last week. Ryan insisted the over-billing issue is separate. She said the company is investigating what went wrong, but said it appeared to be an isolated incident, and that customers’ security information was never in danger.
“Any kind of charges they incur from this error we are going to remedy,” Ryan said.
The company scrambled to deposit money back into accounts. Ryan said Atmos even went so far as to wire money to some customers who were completely out of cash.
After first saying it may take three days for reimbursements to clear, by Monday afternoon the utility said it had reimbursed all but several hundred of its customers.
“You will get your money back, and those overdraft fees will be paid. That will happen,” Ryan assured Atmos customers.
Without money for gas, Miller took the day off from work. He spent much of the afternoon sorting out his finances and calling his bank.
He also plans to opt out of automatic bill pay — the trust is now broken, he said.
“Frankly, once you give them that kind of authority and that kind of control, if somebody wants to click the mouse wrong or not pay attention, they have the whole bank account at their mercy,” Miller said.