CINCINNATI – The energy business is so competitive that some companies will do whatever it takes to get a customer to switch – even lie, according to one former salesman.
“They’re scamming people,” said Gary Joseph, a former door-to-door salesman for a marketing company that worked for an energy provider.
Joseph quit the job after five days because he thought the sales tactics were reprehensible, he said.
“I think it’s unethical,” Joseph said. “I mean, I don’t know how they can live with themselves.”
Joseph said he was coached to go into low-income neighborhoods and target unsuspecting customers, including the elderly. The sellers would conceal their company badges, then say they were in the neighborhood performing an audit and ask to see power bills to make sure residents weren’t overpaying. He said once they got the bill, they would copy down the person’s information.
And a lot of people are falling for this, he said.
Joseph said the company he worked for wasn’t even offering a better rate than its competitors.
“These poor people, they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing...They actually don’t know who they’re talking with, as far as what company you’re working for,” he said.
Nancy Norris of Springfield Township said several people have tried to get her to switch power companies over the years, but the most recent attempt made her furious.
“It seems like they were trying to get us to switch companies without realizing it,” she said.
Norris said her 87-year-old mother answered the phone recently and was greeted by a caller who acted like they were representing her mother's current energy provider.
Norris said she did some research, and later discovered the caller was actually working for a different company.
“I felt like they were trying to take advantage of us,” Norris said. “They were trying to trick us into switching.”
Norris figured out what was going on before it was too late, but plenty of people don’t catch on, Joseph said.
Joseph filed a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the agency that regulates competitive energy sales.
In southwest Ohio last year, PUCO received 800 questions and complaints from concerned customers like Norris, according to PUCO Public Information Officer Matthew Schilling.
According to Schilling, the most frequent issues were:
- Questions about switching, including some who didn’t remember signing up with a supplier, or asking about switching or stop a switch.
- Requests for “apples to apples” charts or other information about supplies, including a specific company’s rate or copies of rate comparisons.
- General questions about how customer choice works and the process.
- Complaints about high variable rates after receiving an introductory rate or after the end of a fixed-rate contract.
- Questions about scams and the legitimacy of companies.
When PUCO receives contacts about suspected wrongdoing related to marketing, the agency works with the supplier to ensure their processes follow the law and regulations, Schilling said.
Schilling also offered some advice for those in the market for a new energy provider. Energychoice.ohio.gov allows consumers to compare offers, learn what to ask suppliers and understand the switching process.
He also recommended that consumers should always ask salespeople for identification. State regulations require suppliers to show a photo ID approved by PUCO that clearly shows what company they work for. It’s also a good idea to question suppliers and read the contract terms, Schilling said.
PUCO also sets limits on door-to-door hours and many communities also have their own local solicitation rules that also apply. The agency updated many of their rules in 2014 thanks to people like Norris who catch something fishy and report it.
“Customers contacting the PUCO is a vital way for us to monitor the marketplace and ensure rules are being followed,” Schilling said.
And if someone asks to see a bill, it’s OK to say no.
“If anything sounds fishy at all, you can get back to them, maybe take down their information and get back to them,” Norris said.
Under Ohio law, someone who signs something when a salesman comes to the door has three days to cancel.
Consumers can also contact PUCO with any questions or complaints at 1-800-686-7826 or puco.ohio.gov.