Inside the lives of the folks knocking on your door to sell you power
By Steve Daniels, Crain’s Chicago Business. October 5, 2018
It was a friend from high school who convinced Ian Taylor over Facebook to work for a firm selling high-priced energy contracts door to door. “I was struggling, living paycheck to paycheck,” says Taylor, explaining how he decided to take a flier on a career that he says promised a six-figure income if he could convince residents to sign up with companies other than their utility for electricity.
Taylor’s decision in 2015 set him on a course that more than two years later has left him homeless in the northern suburbs and looking to put his life back together.
In between, by his account, Taylor, 29, worked 12-hour days, moving from Illinois to Pennsylvania to Ohio and back to Illinois, knocking on strangers’ doors and selling them electricity. Hired by an obscure Forest Park company to sell on behalf of Liberty Power of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Taylor says he eked out $100 to $200 most weeks, living often in hotels and other temporary lodging, with expenses taken from his sales commissions by his employer. When he wasn’t in short-term lodging like hotels or Airbnbs, Taylor lived in “frat houses” controlled by the company and home to an ever-changing band of salespeople.
He wound up abandoned about a month ago in Rockford and sought help from local authorities. He and his pregnant girlfriend, who also worked for International Marketing Concepts, along with another friend sought help and left the firm. They became the second group of door-to-door salespeople left without a home in Rockford in recent months by third-party marketing firms operating on behalf of retail power suppliers.
Says Taylor, who’s been living with his girlfriend, Dasha Daniels, 20, out of their car, “I want to help prevent this.”
Their experience is a disturbing facet of the competitive business of convincing consumers to buy power from firms they’ve usually never heard of, typically at prices exceeding what they would pay if they’d stuck with their utility. Taylor tells a tale of vulnerable people lured into the business with the promise of riches and then paid just enough to subsist but not enough to break free once they see how punishing the business is.
The emergence of these abandoned workers in Rockford, some of whom are teens, has caught the attention of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “We are deeply concerned about this issue, and we are investigating these allegations thoroughly,” a spokeswoman says.
A spokesman for Liberty Power confirms that International Marketing Concepts is a vendor that provides sales workers who go door to door on Liberty’s behalf. “Liberty Power does not condone any activity or practice performed by any vendor or contractor that violates state rules and regulations,” the spokesman says in an email. “The company takes these allegations seriously and will be looking into them immediately.”
Liberty is a “two-star” supplier on the Illinois Commerce Commission’s complaint survey, meaning it’s the subject of a higher-than-average number of complaints from consumers. Of the 344 complaints lodged against Liberty in the two years ended in May, 286, or 83 percent, were in the “sales/marketing” category, according to ICC records. In six months through May, only three other suppliers were the subject of more complaints than Liberty, according to the ICC. That’s out of a total of 56 in the market.
Taylor, his girlfriend and his friend weren’t the only ones abandoned in Rockford. Separately and apparently coincidentally, four teenagers arrived at a homeless shelter there last month after spending a night on the street, according to Rockford officials. The teens had been living in California when they spotted a Facebook ad for Chicago-based WSM Marketing. They signed up, and the firm flew them to Ohio, then transferred them to Rockford.
They had been living in a large home without electricity, owned by Paris Walker, owner of WSM Marketing, for a few days while knocking on doors during the day, says Jennifer Jaeger, Rockford’s director of community services. A dispute with Walker over apparent nonpayment led to a physical confrontation, Jaeger says. Walker ultimately was arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery/physical contact, according to court records.
A Winnebago County public defender for Walker didn’t return phone calls seeking Walker’s contact information. Other efforts to get that information were unsuccessful.
The teens told Rockford officials that WSM had them selling electricity on behalf of Houston-based Spark Energy, another supplier with two stars on the ICC’s website. Rockford officials arranged to have the teens transported to Ohio, where they have family.
The ICC, which enforces state law applying to energy suppliers, has been made aware of the issues in Rockford.
A Spark Energy spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Immediately upon learning about the horrific situation, the Illinois Commerce Commission conducted an initial fact-finding investigation and worked with the Illinois attorney general’s office to learn more about the circumstances,” an ICC spokeswoman says. “The ICC holds all (suppliers) to the highest ethical standards, and if warranted, the ICC will not hesitate to consider any remedies available under our governing rules.”
For now, Madigan’s office is taking the lead in the probe.
Taylor pledges to cooperate in that investigation. The Evanston native, who attended high school in Palatine, was sent to St. Louis by International Marketing Concepts after he joined. He spent about a year selling power contracts in downstate Illinois communities like East St. Louis and Belleville. The first “deals” he offered were 100 percent solar, fixed-price contracts priced at 14.3 cents per kilowatt-hour over two years. That was more than twice the utility’s rate at the time.
IMC would pay “door-knockers” like Taylor $25 per contract. But before paying out the commissions, the company would extract expenses for transportation and lodging, including flights and hotels as they moved salespeople across state lines and into unfamiliar markets.
During his most successful week, Taylor says, he sold enough contracts to earn nearly $700, but that was knocked down to about $200 after “expenses.” Workers were paid via a debit card, and the expenses were noted only in text messages they received, not on official pay stubs, he says.
Additionally, salespeople could take out “loans” from the company for unforeseen expenses. Those would be repaid from future commission payments. Taylor took out such loans in 2016 to buy a suit and fly to attend a party at the Virgin Hotel in Chicago celebrating IMC’s entry into the Pennsylvania market, which the company required him to attend, he says.
“They leave you with just enough to survive to the next week,” he says. The company had an acronym for success—JUICE—which stood for Join Us in Creating Enthusiasm or Join Us in Creating Energy, he says. “They would tell us, ‘Live by the JUICE system.’ The motto was, ‘Eat. Sleep. Repeat.’ ”
In addition, the company would pay only for signed contracts that were made official after consumers were contacted to confirm the deals. So, 50 signed contracts in a week often would come back to the worker as just 20 or so completed deals.
Taylor suspected the company was trying to cheat him and others and checked back with some of the households he’d been told hadn’t followed through. Some of them, he says, assured him they did.
Workers were expected to “knock doors” for 12 hours a day, he says. Minimum quotas were 180 to 280 doors a day, depending on the density of the neighborhood. Drivers would drop the workers off in unfamiliar areas around 9 a.m. and fetch them at 9 p.m. In between, they were on their own. “You’re dropped off in some town,” Taylor says. “It’s very scary. It’s dangerous. . . .I’ve had guns pointed at me.”
Sales reps were directed to go to nursing homes and try to sell power deals to elderly residents, many of whom pay electricity for their own units. “They would literally train the rookies by going into nursing homes,” Taylor says.
In response, company owner Jaunius Geleziunas provides a lengthy email confirming that Taylor was a contracted sales agent with his firm and asserting that he worked for “approximately 20 months.”
He says salespeople work eight-hour shifts, not 12. “Generally from about 11 a.m. to approximately 7 p.m. These marketing windows may vary by market but in all cases are within the marketing hours approved by the state/local ordinances for conducting field sales. Our company strictly adheres to these rules, and our sales technology restricts contracting outside of the legislated hours.”
As to the expenses Taylor says were withdrawn from sales reps’ pay, Geleziunas emails that when workers agree to work away from their homes, “our company transports the contractors to the new location. The contractor agrees to reimburse the company for the transportation costs from future earnings. Additionally, the company offers the benefit of an initial month of shared housing (private bedroom for each person) to contractors for free to lower the expense of relocation, if they desire to use it. After the initial month, contractors who choose to remain in company-acquired housing split the housing costs amongst themselves.”
Geleziunas launched IMC six years ago after he spent the three years before that as a “crew leader” in the Chicago area for retail power supplier Just Energy, according to his LinkedIn profile.
For Taylor, his miserable two-plus years (by his account) with IMC came to an end in Rockford. He says he’d been told the company would put $2,000 on his card. The money never arrived, and he says he was told to go to a home in Waukegan that the company was said to control. When he arrived, there was an eviction notice on the door.
That’s when he and Daniels and his friend turned to Catholic Charities for help. Catholic Charities in Waukegan contacted Liberty Power and in the meantime sent the trio back to Rockford to stay at a homeless shelter in nearby Belvidere.
That was it. After quitting the company, Taylor and Daniels are living in their car and at times staying with friends. He’s looking hard for work, he says.
Says Geleziunas, “I have no knowledge of Ian Taylor’s allegation of being homeless in Rockford. We do not condone any behavior that is in violation of state rules and regulations and have reviewed these allegations to the fullest to ensure such mistreatment did not in fact take place.”
Asked whether he was asserting that Taylor and his companions weren’t actually left homeless in Rockford, Geleziunas didn’t respond.
Real the full Crain’s article here.