Service Electric Cable box

Fire victim faces new trauma over cable TV box

Until now, the aftermath of Sarah Donnelly's tragic house fire has been a feel good story.

The Lower Saucon home her family had rented for 20 years was destroyed in a fire in February, and besides the loss of everything she owned, she lost eight pets in the blaze. For someone who has devoted her life to helping animals, most recently as medical director and vet tech at the Peaceable Kingdom shelter in Whitehall, this was by far the cruelest blow, and she was inconsolable.

That's when her friends in the animal welfare community and strangers all over rose up to help her, donating money, clothes and furniture and bombarding her with letters of sympathy after friends made appeals and I wrote about her. More than 600 people donated almost $28, 000 on the GoFundMe page set up for her by friend Stacey Orlouski, and more money poured into Peaceable Kingdom and a donations bucket at the Belmont Inne in Lower Saucon.

She told me she was stunned, "I couldn't understand that so many people cared.

"I can't believe how many letters I got. People kept saying, 'I read Bill White's column and I felt read bad for you.' " She posted a stack of the letters on Facebook and wrote, "The positive messages in these letters helps a lot."

But here's where the story turns ugly.

Among the things lost in the fire was Donnelly's Service Electric cable TV box.

She called Service Electric the day after the fire to explain what had happened. She said after a long wait on hold, she was told they couldn't find her account. Her father stopped by the next day and was told the same thing.

When she finally reached someone who could locate her account, Donnelly explained that the box had been destroyed in the fire, and the woman told her she would talk to her manager.

Donnelly felt hopeful about that … until she got the bill last week, which said she owed $600, including her charge for February and $400 for the lost box.

So she called again and got another woman, who she said refused to budge and pointed out that renter's insurance — which Donnelly didn't have — should pay for it. The woman concluded, "We're not going to take it off. We need the equipment or the money." Donnelly asked if she could speak to someone else. She couldn't. "You have to pay it."

Very upset, Donnelly did what people do these days when they get pushed around.

She posted about it on Facebook.

"Service Electric Cable is telling me I must pay $400 for a cable box that burned in my house. They could care less if the house is destroyed, their policy is equipment return or $. I will never give them business again."

Her Facebook friends reacted angrily. Orlouski messaged The Morning Call and then Service Electric through its Facebook page, pasting on Donnelly's message and writing, "I have notified the news and the community watchdog. How unprofessional and lacking in compassion you are."

Typical of the responses to Donnelly's Facebook post was this one: "I just sent a very nasty message to their customer service department telling them that I am going to spread this all over social media about how heartless they are."

Not surprisingly, Orlouski's message drew a quick Facebook message back from Service Electric. "Please have your friend message or call us, " it said. "We will take care of this for her. Our office manager is already crediting the boxes for her."

Nonetheless, Donnelly got another bill a couple of days later that listed a whopping $700 "Lost or Damaged Equipment Charge." It included the notation, "Your account indicates both unreturned SECTV equipment and an outstanding balance. If arrangements are not made to return this equipment, a value of $1, 271.90 will be reported to one of the three major credit bureaus."

Donnelly shot off an email about this and got a reply that it was sent out before the charge was dropped. Service Electric general manager Jack Capparell and office manager Phyllis Christine told me the $700 amount was a mistake, too.

They said neither of them knew anything about Sarah Donnelly until her situation was posted on Facebook. Christine explained that the policy is to come to a supervisor in cases where there are extenuating circumstances. That didn't happen here.

"I credited her account within five minutes, " she said. "Someone should have come to us earlier than that."

I should note that this situation wasn't unique. RCN tried getting a similar lost equipment payment from a family whose home blew up in the 2011 Allentown gas explosion, but backed off when it was contacted by The Morning Call's watchdog column reporter Paul Muschick.

I suggested to Capparell that it might be a good idea to have a clearer policy in place.

He said, "You can't write a policy to encompass all situations. Our policy has been to look at the situation and take everything into consideration. We've never made a decision contrary to what was in the best interest of the customer."

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