Updated:ORLANDO, Fla. —
An Orlando woman claims she never got her day in court after the Orlando Utilities Commission demanded $22,000 to keep electric running.
The utility found Nelly Segarra's meter was tampered with and the homeowner felt she was being labeled guilty until proven innocent.
"I couldn't believe what was going on," said Segarra.
Segarra said she had just opened a letter from OUC stating her electric meter had been tampered with for 15 years. Segarra said she was told she had to pay $22,000 immediately to avoid civil theft charges and to keep her power on.
"Who has $22,000 to pay in 30 days when I haven't done anything," said Segarra.
Segarra said her power bills were always low and her home has just one
air conditioning window unit. She claims OUC would not show her evidence and when she suggested hiring an attorney the power was shut off that day.
"I asked them, 'Don't you have any proof who did it"' Because I didn't do anything," said Segarra.
Many consumer groups said tampering regulations favor utilities and customers are found guilty without the right to a defense.
"The issue is there's no access for this customer and no process for this customer to remedy the situation," said Maria McCluskey of Organize Now.
OUC showed Action 9 pictures of a tiny hole in Nelly's meter but didn't want it released to prevent copycats. The utility said it had secretly replaced the suspect meter that proved higher usage and said its $22,000 demand letter is mandatory.
"It's a legal letter required by Florida statutes. That's a first step toward civil litigation," said OUC spokesman Tim Trudell.
But the $22,000 is three times the amount of power OUC claims was stolen, Action 9 learned.
Segarra said she was forced to pay nearly $7,000 just to turn the lights back on but she's still considering a lawyer.
"I would like my money back because I don't think it's fair," she said.
OUC said it has 600 meter tampering cases a year, and very few customers successfully disputed its findings.
The agency said customers can see the evidence and Segarra only had to pay $7,000 to close the case.