ZIP Code Glitch on Mailing Confuses Alarm Customers

If you live in Columbus and protect your home or business with an alarm system, you have to pay a $35 fee every two years for a city license.

But what if you don't live in Columbus, yet receive a letter saying you owe the fee?

That's what John Frencho wondered. The Minerva Park resident received a letter this week from a Pennsylvania company telling him he must register his alarm system with Columbus and pay the fee to the city.

"How many people were getting this?" asked Frencho, 84, who doesn't owe the fee because he lives outside Columbus. But he worries that people, especially older residents, will send in the money without checking whether they owe it.

About 1,000 letters were sent by Alarm Capital Alliance of suburban Philadelphia to customers of Pataskala-based Apollo Alarm Systems. Alarm Capital bought Apollo's customer accounts and processors' bills for the company.

Apollo customers in Bexley, Dublin and Westerville also received some of the letters, said Andre Gordon, Apollo's president. He said he had no idea the letters were sent.

"We've had a lot of phone calls about this," said Sharon Gadd, Columbus' license section manager. "It's confusing."

Alarm Capital's Ana Bottos said the city sent the company a list of ZIP codes and the company assumed Apollo customers who lived there were liable for the fee. However, the ZIP codes included customers who lived outside Columbus.

City officials thought Alarm Capital wanted the ZIP codes so it could update which Apollo customers live in Columbus and forward that information back to the licensing department.

Columbus notifies residents who buy police and fire alarms that they must pay the fee to obtain a permit. The notices include a disclaimer telling people to disregard it if they live outside the city. The letter from Alarm Capital did not include such a disclaimer.

Alarm Capital sent the letters only as a courtesy to customers, said John Steffanato Sr., one of its owners. "We're trying to back up what the town wants done."

The letters tell people to send the fee to the city, not the company.

Gadd said Columbus will refund fees mistakenly paid to the city. Until now, that has usually amounted to only two or three a year, she said.

The city started charging the fee in 1996 to help offset the cost of police and fire responding to false alarms. It collected $497,775 last year.