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Watch your wallet: Electric/gas scammers prey on Illinois consumers

Be on high alert if someone approaches you with a utility “discount” that’s too good to be true: CUB is constantly getting complaints about alternative electric and gas suppliers using predatory sales tactics.

Most customers in Illinois can choose a company other than the regulated utility to be their electric or gas supplier. But Illinois’ market has been confusing and plagued by rip-offs. Since January, CUB has handled 526 complaints and inquiries about alternative suppliers, a slight uptick compared to the same period last year.

At a recent utility-bill clinic hosted at a Chicago-area low-income housing complex, staff saw a sign posted at the door: “No soliciting to residents! This includes all energy sign-up people!”

“Unscrupulous alternative suppliers don’t discriminate and will try to switch anybody, but they are particularly predatory when it comes to seniors and low-income residents,” said Scott Allen, CUB’s Environmental Outreach Coordinator in Hillsboro.

In addition to knocking on your door or calling you on the phone, suppliers also market Illinoisans at grocery stores, airports, even the movie theater. Some communities, including Naperville, Decatur, and Peoria, have issued warnings, the Chicago Housing Authority has banned alternative suppliers from their properties, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against one alternative power supplier in August for “aggressive” and “deceptive” sales practices.

Am I with an alternative supplier? Here’s how to find out.

Deceptive practices include sales reps posing as the regulated utility, switching a customer without his or her consent, failing to clearly disclose the terms of a contract, and offering incentives – such as gift cards and airline miles – without mentioning that the value of such incentives can be applied to termination fees.

Scott warns that the regulated utilities will NEVER call you or knock on your door to pitch a “discount,” or ask to see your account number: “Legitimate agencies generally don’t come to your door, or ask for personal information over the phone.”

Find more detailed information on making supplier decisions at CUBHelpCenter.com. The publication gives consumers tips on avoiding bad deals, an informational poster to warn neighborhoods of door-to-door rip-offs, and a chart that compares alternative supplier offers with utility rates.

How do I evaluate alternative supplier offers?

  • Don’t give out your bill, account number, OR your phone number unless you are sure you want to switch. If you do, an unethical marketer could use that information to switch you to an alternative supplier without your consent. Sales reps who approach you in person can use online lookup tools to get your utility account information using just your phone number.
  • Ask about the price and how it compares to the regulated utility’s price. (Use CUBPowerCalculator.com.)
  • Ask if the rate you are being offered is an introductory or promotional rate, and if so, when that rate will end and what the new rate will be.
  • Ask if the rate you’re being offered has any fees tied to it, such as an exit fee or a monthly fee that will inflate the per-therm or per-kWh rate.
  • Always take a few days to consider the fine print, and call CUB at 1-800-669-5556 if you have questions.
    If you change your mind or believe that you signed a bad contract, cancel it as soon as possible. By law customers are allowed to leave a contract without paying a fee within 10 days after the date of the first bill. Exit fees are capped at $50.
  • Confirm that you have the supplier and rate you are expecting by looking at your monthly bill under the “Supplier” section.
  • If you believe an alternative supplier has misled you, file a complaint with CUB.