Rumors of a steep discount on electric bills from Memphis Light, Gas and Water thanks to a donation from former Memphis Grizzlies star Zach Randolph had thousands of people flocking to malfunctioning payment kiosks Saturday morning to take advantage of a deal that didn't exist.
MLGW President and CEO Jerry Collins said a glitch in the dozens of payment kiosks spread around town caused customer accounts to reflect they only owed 1 percent of their actual bill. Collins, who called a news conference Saturday afternoon to dispel the false narrative, said a "decimal point issue" of unknown origin spurred rumors on social media of discounted bills.
He said that once the glitch is repaired, all bills will have to be paid in full.
"The customers have been taken advantage of by social media," Collins said. "We apologize for any inconvenience that anyone has suffered and we want to make sure that everybody’s bills are kept in a good payment status."
An MLGW spokesperson said 23,000 people made payments at kiosks in one day. The normal amount for a Saturday is 800.
The problems with the kiosks began Friday, Collins said, and he learned around 7:30 a.m. Saturday that social media had attributed the discounted bills to a generous donation from Randolph. The former Grizzlies player has a history of paying off MLGW bills in the city, but confirmed on Twitter that he had not given the rumored $1 million.
The rumor about me donating 1 million dollars to MLGW is FALSE. However I will make my annual $20,000 contribution to MIFA/MLGW in the fall— Zach Randolph (@MacBo50) July 8, 2017
Randolph said he will make his annual donation of $20,000 to MLGW and the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association in the fall, despite Tuesday's news that he agreed to a deal to play for the Sacramento Kings next year.
MLGW posted on its social media platforms early Saturday that the rumors were false, and that the problem was due to kiosks not reflecting accurate balances. But the damage was done, as people eager to pay pennies on the dollar of their actual bill formed lines out the front door of gas stations and other local businesses that house the kiosks.
Toya Carpenter, an MLGW customer who waited in line for over an hour at an Exxon gas station at Danny Thomas Boulevard and Poplar, said she did not even get close to the door.
"The police said they had to stop a confrontation inside, so they just unplugged the machines," Carpenter said.
Sherinna Walker said she drove to Germantown at 7 a.m., having heard the rumor. “This is a big help, if it’s true,” she said. But if not, she added, “I’d be real upset.”
Walker, who ended up at the same downtown Exxon as Carpenter, said many people in line were in wheelchairs.
“People who can’t get around, but they’re out here trying to get their light bill paid,” she said.
Despite the errors, the kiosks were still accepting payments. Customers walked out of businesses with receipts showing a balance of zero dollars on their account.
Collins said anyone who made a payment will have the amount they paid credited to their account. Businesses who allowed customers to continue to use the machines will earn commission off the $2 service fees required to make a payment at the kiosk.
Nawaz Virji, owner of a Marathon gas station also at Danny Thomas and Poplar, said as soon as he arrived Saturday morning, there was a line around his business. He continued to let people use the machines throughout the morning.
"What we're collecting, they'll collect tomorrow," Virji said of the company that operates the kiosks.
Collins said at the noon news conference that MLGW was in contact with businesses that house the machines, which were in the process of being shut down until the issue is identified and resolved.
Collins didn't rule out the possibility the machines were hacked, but said customer account information was not compromised.
Because of the confusion, Collins said the company will not turn off anyone's power on Monday.
Tywanna Clark said she rushed to a gas station to pay her bill Saturday morning because her husband isn't working right now.
"I sure hope this is true," she said. "I'm trying to do everything myself on minimum wage pay."
Kristy Clark also paid off at least a portion of her bill Saturday morning at the Marathon station after Exxon's machine was unplugged. She was still hopeful the discount shown on her receipt wasn't a lie or a scam.
"If I find out Monday morning my bill isn't paid, I'm just going to go and pay my bill," she said.
Anyone who visited an MLGW kiosk, Exxon on the Run or Tiger Mart kiosk since Friday to pay a bill is asked to call the MLGW at 901-544-6549.