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Here’s why it pays to read the fine print

By Samantha Vercellino

20151012_Fineprint_fbRichard Carlson is more than conscious of his home energy use.

The Chicago resident, who owns a studio apartment, takes care in turning off the lights before work and using his air conditioner only on the hottest days. It is because of his commitment to being energy efficient that his electric bills have stayed below $80 all these years.

But that all changed when Richard signed up with Spark Energy, an alternative supplier, in January and saw his bill jump to $128 almost seven months later.

Confused to why it had skyrocketed, he searched his statement for answers and discovered he was paying roughly 17 cents per kilowatt-hour to power his home—a rate that more than doubled what ComEd was charging at the time.

It wasn’t until Richard called CUB that he realized he was now on a variable rate plan, which changes month-to-month according to market conditions.

“A solicitor from the company came to my door during the weekday,” Richard said. “He used high-pressure sales tactics, so I didn’t really know what I was signing up for.”

Richard received a renewal letter in June, but he said he failed to read the fine print that stated his introductory rate of 7.59 cents per kilowatt-hour was now expiring, and his account would “automatically roll onto a month-to-month variable plan.”

“I felt that they were dishonest and misleading about the  rate,” Richard said. “But it was a mistake, on my end, not to look at the fine print more closely.”

Before switching to a new electric supplier, CUB urges consumers to dive into their contracts and ask themselves these five key questions:

  1. Is the price an introductory rate that changes after a certain period?
  2. Does the company charge an exit fee if you want to get out of the contract early?
  3. Does the company charge a monthly fee that will inflate its advertised price?
  4. Does the contract allow the company to get out of the rate it promised?
  5. Does the company charge a deposit?

Consumers can also call CUB’s Consumer Hotline, at 1-800-669-5556, if they have any questions regarding their rights. (Check out the electric competition fact sheets for ComEd and Ameren.)

For his part, Richard says he plans to take a break from alternative electric suppliers.