How Electric Providers Use Sleazy Scams To Sell Energy

Thu, 2012-12-27 06:00Laurel Whitney
Laurel Whitney's picture

How Electric Providers Use Sleazy Scams To Sell Energy

Imagine this:

You're working from home on a Friday, winding down from the week, furiously reading the latest climate news until you commute from the living room to your bed to begin your normal 3:00 brainstorming session (aka a nap). Suddenly, the door rings. Who could be stopping by on a Friday afternoon?

Groggy from your midday siesta, you drag yourself to the front door wearing your pink fluffy robe (because seriously, if you're working from home and taking a nap, you're not wearing pants), only to open it to two smiling men in business suits.

“Ma'am, there's something wrong with your energy bill, you're being charged too much. May we see it?”

In your somewhat drunken stupor, you're baffled as to how that could be, but oblige. Somehow, 20 minutes later, you're signing a contract just to get these weirdos out of your doorway and back to your nap.

All of a sudden, the realization sets in- you've been scammed by energy brokers.

This happens all the time in New York City. The energy markets have been deregulated here, allowing for competition, but in its wake it's left the city dwellers with conniving, sleazy “salesmen” who are less concerned with selling you energy and more determined to trick you into signing a contract with the company.

Many residents who live in areas where energy is deregulated are allowed to choose their own company to purchase from or stay with the default utility. In New York, the utility is ConEd, although, for example, others may choose to purchase energy from companies that supply wind or hydro power. ConEd still supplies the electricity, but technically part of the electric bill goes to the company from which you choose to buy.

However, the city becomes riddled with energy brokers who lie and scheme their way into getting new customers.

Usually they come to your door and ask for your utility bill while claiming to be with ConEd. They're not actually with ConEd but rather another electric company. While you show them your bill, the brokers are banking on the fact that most people don't really pay attention to it. Then they either write down your account number to later switch your provider, or point to the bill claiming you must choose an energy provider. They give you the idea that if you don't take action, your electricity would be disconnected.

“We've been trying to reach you for weeks, have you not received our notifications?”

Uhhh no.

“That's why we had to come out today. When you don't respond to our notes on your bill, ConEd has to send us out in person.”

I was completely confused and suspicious as these gentlemen told me some story about how my energy provider had gotten too many complaints from customers and insinuated the company's permit to sell energy in the NYC area would be revoked.

“See, your price is variable, we're offering you a low fixed price.”

But I choose wind power because it's clean; I know it costs a bit more.

“Oh yeah, we have wind power too.”

I guess when you're making shit up as you go along, you have an answer for everything.

Now while I'm not the smartest cookie in the box, I'm not the dumbest either; I am pretty astute. I totally predicted the kid was already dead in the Sixth Sense, and I know better than to click the links that claim to “deliver the secret to losing inches off your belly!” (I see right through your lies, internet ads).

But what got me in the end was that the energy brokers continually assured me they were with the New York State Public Service Commission- a government agency. They made it sound as though they were offering some kind of government-subsidized energy. I didn't think they'd have the cahones to impersonate a government agency. That's fraud and super illegal.

“We get complaints about this everyday, from all over the city,” said the representative from the actual Public Service Commission (PSC) as I asked him questions while filing my complaint.

According to the PSC, there are over 240 different companies that provide energy in the New York area. The stiff competition spurs deceptive sales techniques that swindle rather than persuade a customer to change over. The PSC investigates every complaint, and if they find wrongdoing, usually issue a fine. However, my justice-serving, knight in digital armor on the phone informed me that because the agency has been getting more calls about this particular brand of fraud, they were forming a special task force to handle the investigations.

It's very illegal for brokers to claim to be from ConEd, let alone the New York State Public Service Commission. It's possible that instead of a fine, future punishments may include revoking a company's license to sell energy in an area.

Another highly illegal move companies try to pull is when they obtain your account number and sign you up without your permission. It's called slamming- and you may not be aware of it unless you notice a change in the bill with increased prices or random fees.

The kicker is that usually a contract is signed for two years, and if you opt out, you have to pay a fee (for example: $15 for every remaining month of the contract). This point might become especially sticky if you keep signing contracts willy-nilly whenever someone knocks on your door. The consumer shouldn't be shackled to a contract- if another business offers a better product, they should be free to switch, not trapped.

I don't care how cheap your energy is, if a company partakes in these skeezy practices, I don't want any of their business. They leave the consumer weak and victimized, where in reality it should be the consumer who has the power - the power to decide which companies live or die.

Yet fossil fuel companies, whether they're extracting resources or peddling electricity, continually engage in tactics that confuse the public in one way or another. Only companies with an inferior or outdated product need to use those kinds of methods.

As for those two energy brokers, perhaps next time they shouldn't try to punk an energy & environment blogger (we tend to not keep our mouths shut).

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A well-deserved show of gratitude to the efficient and reliable fossil fuel sources of American energy independence — oil, coal and gas — is in order, following a truly remarkable string of success stories in recent days nationwide.      

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