Watch CBS News

Getting Hosed: A woman fights the City over a water bill she never should have received and wins -- at a cost of more than $12,000

Getting Hosed: A woman takes on the city over bad water billing and wins -- at great cost
Getting Hosed: A woman takes on the city over bad water billing and wins -- at great cost 06:38

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Getting Hosed, our exposé on Chicago's bad water billing, has saved consumers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We also have a database of dozens of you whom we've yet to get to. So we wanted to know - what happens if you take on the City yourself?

CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards – Mr. Water Bill himself – found an inspiring answer.

Every water bill we've looked into in four years is wrong. In our sample set, on average, they inflated more than 80 percent.

And if you want to fight your baloney water bill all yourself, odds are you'll lose. But one extraordinary woman who found herself getting hosed stands out as an exception.

"It's beyond debt collecting," said Deborah Karim. "It's almost like being a financial and credit serial killer."

And Karim may know better than any. She had been embroiled in a near-decade-long fight over a water bill of more than $12,000 that should have been zero.

It all started for Karim in 2013. She fought the Water Department on her own - and won.

She told us her story after seeing our battle to get wrong water bills righted.

"Since I got hosed, I want to expose," Karim said.

Karim suffers from heart disease – which makes her hands waver. But her conviction most assuredly does not.

Karim wrote to Edwards in February. She wrote that she felt like she had been "in a 15-round boxing match."

"I was a real estate investor. 2008 was an economic collapse. All my eggs were in one basket, and it was very, very painful. It's painful now to talk about it," Karim said. "But when the Chicago Water Department shut off the water, we were forced to buy water at the store."

Karim left Chicago in the wake of the financial crisis.

"If you're going to be homeless, Florida is the place to be," she said. "I think it's 80 degrees right now."

And before Karim lost her American dream to foreclosure, the two-flat she owned fell into disrepair.

"No utilities running. Pipes busted. Ceilings caved in. Walls collapsed," she said.

That's right – no utilities, pipes busted. Yet in 2013, the city hit Karim with a water bill for $1,030.02.

So Karim went to court before the Department of Administrative Hearings – like traffic court for water bills.

At her hearing, a judge said the city did not have enough evidence to prove Karim used any water. Note again that she was in Florida, and the pipes were busted.

So it was over, right?

Wrong.

Six years later at a hearing in 2019, a City attorney said, "Because there is evidence that the water was on, the City did bill accordingly."

The City was on Karim again – this time for $12,672.70.

And again, what did Karim say the conditions were at the property for which she was being billed?

"No utilities running. Pipes busted."

So how did this happen? You guessed it. There was an unmetered account involved.

Karim and 180,000 other Chicagoans have unmetered accounts. They are not billed on usage, but often bad guesstimates.

"I think the system is rigged," Karim said.

In Karim's case she was fighting bills that had already been declared bogus six years prior.

It's like the City isn't talking to the City. It's all silos – the Water Department, the Finance Department, the Administrative Hearing Department.

Karim gathered every bill and every shutoff notice – for a file she says documents "eight years of hell." She submitted countless public records - including one for the audio of her 20-13 court victory.

She played that recording for the judge at her new hearing, as a City attorney fought her. At the 2019 administrative hearing, this is what happened:

Karim: "May I play the audio, your honor, that's related?"

City Attorney: "I guess, I would object on relevance."

Judge: "I'll listen to it."

Oh, it was relevant after all.

"I am finding in favor of the respondent and against the City," the judge later said, "and I am dismissing the case."

Karim won, again.

"What we went through probably would have made some people give up," she said.

Indeed most would. For just one trip back from Florida for one court date on Nov. 6 of last year, it cost Karim $1,803.40 between airline tickets, a hotel room, a rental car, and other expenses. And yes, she has receipts.

But Karim did not fly in for a court date just once. All told, she made seven such trips fighting the case.

In all, she spent $12,623.80 for that. The water bill she was fighting was $12,672.70. Subtract the former number from the latter, and what do you have?

$48.90. That's it.

And that's money that was never actually owed in the first place. In reality, Karim spent countless hours – and $12,623.80, with nothing to subtract it from – for a bill that a judge-deemed fake bill.

"And I think – honestly, I think they're making millions over there," Karim said.

Since 2012, the City has netted $127,779,286.22 in judgments, fines, and sanctions – and we don't know many Deborah Karims are in there. We can say, since 2012, of the 138,076 cases called to water bill court, Karim's was one of only 30 to be dismissed.

In the end, Karim didn't really win.

"Stop those settlements for thousands of dollars that you don't owe," Karim said.

And Chicago lost too. It lost Karim - a good citizen who fights for right.

"Fight," she said. "Fight back."

So what about the money Karim lost to win - the $12,000-plus she spent on flights, lodging, and other expenses? Yes, she could get it back - but she'd have to sue to do it. And that would cost - you got it, more money.

Karim is looking for a lawyer to take on her case. If you're that lawyer, let us know.

EMERGENCY COMPONENT - LOCAL

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.