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ICC investigates four alternative suppliers

The Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) has brought four cases against alternative electric suppliers for allegedly violating marketing-related rules. CUB has gotten involved in the cases to make sure consumers’ voices are heard.

Buried in the legal language are stories from consumers alleging outrageous behavior from some alternative suppliers. Here’s a rundown of what the ICC is investigating in each case:

National Gas & Electric, docket #18-1653

The ICC report includes a long list of alleged violations, including: using the ComEd name and logo in a deceptive or misleading manner; making false or misleading statements; failure to disclose minimum contract terms and conditions; failure to comply with third-party verification requirements; failure of agents to disclose themselves as independent sellers; and marketing to customers who have asked the company to stop marketing to them. And that’s not even every alleged violation!

As bad as that sounds, the details are worse. The ICC report refers to a telemarketing campaign that allegedly led customers to believe they were on the phone with ComEd instead of an alternative supplier, and customers claiming that NG&E enrolled them despite the customer outright refusing to do so. And then there’s this:

“Information in the possession of Consumer Services Division includes a complaint from a woman who asserts that her husband did not and could not have authorized a switch to NG&E since at the time of the alleged telemarketing call and TPV [third-party verification] he had been deceased for more than two years.”

Star Energy Partners, #18-1652

Star Energy’s marketing strategy outlined in the ICC’s October 2018 report is all about environmental responsibility, with material claiming to offer “100% Green Energy.” (Read CUB’s guide on green plans.)

The problem is that the material also includes the ComEd logo near Star’s logo, along with the phrase “our partnership in energy.” It also says that in “the next few days, ComEd will reach out to you to confirm your switch to our Star Hybrid Advantage fixed-rate energy plan” and that “we’re taking care of all the details.”

The ICC alleges that this marketing piece violates regulations against using the name and logo of the regulated utility, and against making false or misleading statements, since it suggests that Star’s offering is either in partnership with ComEd or an offering of ComEd itself.

Another alleged violation is that Star failed to disclose minimum contract terms and conditions regarding a 50-cent daily fee supposedly to purchase “100% national wind renewable energy credits based upon [a customer’s] individualized usage.” But the fee is assessed by day, not by usage, and it doesn’t include any charges related to supply and delivery.

On top of that, the ICC says Star has “failed or refused” to document that any of its sales agents have completed the required training.

LifeEnergy Partners, #18-1540

LifeEnergy Partners is another alternative supplier alleged to have not trained their its sales agents properly, according to three informal complaints filed with the ICC. In those complaints, the sales agents either made the calls that triggered the complaints a month or more before receiving the required training, or possibly didn’t get the training at all.

LifeEnergy responded to one of those complaints by saying the customer had been “inadvertently enrolled” — twice, by different agents, in November 2017 and May 2018!

Based on these paperwork failures, the ICC expressed “serious concerns about the accuracy and content of LifeEnergy’s delayed compliance filings and trainings of agents.”

Great American Power, #18-1773

The ICC had some harsh words for Great American Power’s handling of training compliance requirements as well, saying the company’s rule interpretation reflects a “failure to properly evaluate, or a complete disregard, of the compliance requirements” since the company told the ICC it believed that it did not need to train third-party agents selling on its behalf.

This may be related to the further allegations that Great American Power is not making sure its sales agents are providing complete, accurate information in their sales calls or complying with all laws and regulations. The report claims the company’s agents violated the prohibition against marketing at buildings with “No Soliciting” signs, or entering multi-unit buildings to attempt to enroll multiple residents.

In addition, the ICC report claims that Great American Power did not properly investigate a “high-volume number of informal complaints” in a timely manner.

What can you do?

The ICC can’t take action against suppliers that violate the rules if it doesn’t know the violations are happening. That’s why CUB General Counsel Julie Soderna and Senior Attorney Kelly Turner strongly recommend filing a complaint with the ICC when you suspect misleading marketing from alternative suppliers, even if you don’t actually enroll or lose money.

On another front, CUB is working at the Illinois General Assembly to pass stronger consumer protections for electric and gas customers. Be sure to sign up for CUB’s e-newsletter to find out when you can urge your legislators to support pro-consumer legislation.