KILL THAT BILL

by Ani Ivanova

Paying for your heating in cash may be a chilling experience

Yes, things are changing: large retail and wholesale stores, many hotels and a growing number of restaurants now accept credit and debit cards in what remains an overwhelmingly cash economy.

The same is true when it comes to paying utility bills, only the shift is taking place at a lower pace. So if you haven't inked a property management contract, aren't lucky enough to have a friendly landlady willing to do the job for you, or don't have a reliable Internet connection, you have to be prepared to carry some cash and hardcopy bills with you whenever you want to pay up.

What you should know about the utility companies

Electricity

The three foreign-owned power companies that cover different parts of the country seem to be the most demanding suppliers. You have to pay your bill in the allotted window - the due date is specified on the bill you receive, usually around the middle of the month. As of April 2007 monthly bills can be split in two, resulting in two deadlines within a single month, which are always reflected on the paper statement. You can also check them out at the providers' webpages, www.cezelectro.bg, www.evn-ec.bg, and www.eon-bulgaria.com/english.

If you don't pay on time, your power may be cut off two days after the deadline. In that case, you have to go to a customer service centre, identify yourself with either a bill or by providing the subscriber's full details, and pay up. Also, you will be charged 11 leva (in the case of Sofia) to have your power restored by the end of the day. Depending on the region and the provider, monthly electricity bills are payable not only in cash at customer centres scattered across town, but also at ATM terminals, at banks and at www.epay.bg.

Gas

Once again, you are expected to settle your bill by the 20th of each month, after which the local gas distribution company may disconnect you. To get reconnected, you not only need to settle your bill but also cough up a one-month deposit as well. It will be refunded - provided that over the next 12 months you prove yourself a law-abiding customer.

Hot water and central heating

In Bulgaria, central heating lives up to its name - it is centrally controlled by the Toplofikatsiya Company, which decides when to turn it on (usually November) and switch it off (normally March). Heating bills are a continual source of concern for citizens, mostly because of the less-than-transparent methods adopted by the so-called heating accounting companies to calculate winter consumption rates.

The company will also send you monthly bills detailing hot water and heating costs separately. Monthly payments can be made at customer centres in cash, and by all the aforementioned means - provided bills are not overdue.

Water and wastewater

The water and wastewater utility will send you a monthly invoice listing a variety of payment methods. Bills are based on an average monthly consumption. This is why a company staff member will visit you once every three months - they will check your real water consumption and if it exceeds the monthly average, your next bill will be a whopper.

Home phone

You can pay your phone bill in cash at several places: the BTC customer service centres and certain local post offices by the end of each month, and by bank, ATM and online by the 25th of each month. If you don't pay by the due date, your home phone will be disconnected on the first couple of days of the next month so that you can only receive incoming calls. You will have to go pay your bill in cash and wait for a few hours until your phone is connected again.

Mobile phone

All three mobile operators MTel, Globul and Vivatel use a similar modus operandi, only they are a tad more tolerant and allow you to miss a payment for 10 days or so before they cut off your outgoing calls. Their bills are payable online, by bank, by phone and at pay stations.

Cable TV and Internet

These are quite flexible in terms of payment and service. In addition to cash, there are a number of payment methods available - and even a prepay service.

What you should know about payment options

Customer service centres

Normally, these take cash only and are closed on weekends. Long queues are frequent when payments are due, and in most cases you should either bring a paper bill or have the subscriber's full details: number, name and address. English is rarely spoken, so bringing a bill saves you the trouble of having to practice your sign language.

ATMS

Importantly, these accept MasterCard, Visa and other major cards, in addition to locally issued credit and debit cards, and you can pay your bill without any preliminary registration. The hitch is that you have to know some basic Bulgarian to be able to use an ATM. The other option is to memorise the steps you need to take to pay your bill.

www.epay.bg

The online service only works with debit cards issued by local banks. First, you need to register your card at an ATM, and then create your account at epay.bg. Luckily, most of the utilities have now joined this online payment system, so you just need to choose the individual providers, and enter your subscriber numbers.

You can also subscribe to receive email messages about bills due on a monthly basis. These both remind you that payment is due and inform you of the amount. Then all you need to do is log on and… well, pay. Bear in mind that if you miss the deadline, you will have to pay cash. The webpage's major disadvantage is that it is in Bulgarian only.

EpayVoice

To make use of this service, you need to have a debit card and a digital phone (fixed or mobile). Once you perform the mandatory initial registration, either at your bank or at an ATM terminal, you can pay all your bills with a single call - in English, if need be.

Banks

Banks offer a variety of utility payment options, including e-banking, phone banking, bank transfer and automatic payment. Ask your bank for details.

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