Eversource: Time to rein in competitive electricity suppliers
Exec stops short of endorsing Healey’s bid to eliminate the firms
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Though the topics our customer care representatives discuss with customers vary greatly, high on the list of frequently asked questions are those centered around competitive electricity supply and the deceptive or aggressive practices of some suppliers and marketers who sell it. Competitive supply developed in the wake of electricity deregulation, when utilities like Eversource withdrew from the generation business and focused on transmission and distribution. Customers are now free to buy electricity from whichever company they want, or take power through the basic service product we purchase on their behalf.
Wanting to learn more about the pervasiveness of deceptive sales practices in the competitive supply business, we conducted a survey about a year ago. A staggering 84 percent of respondents noted that a salesperson who called or visited them indicated they were either employed by Eversource, partnering with us, or in some way working on our behalf. In reality, none of those statements are accurate. Even more worrisome than the statistics indicating some suppliers are misrepresenting themselves is that 15 percent of survey respondents reported the salesperson was wearing what appeared to be Eversource clothing or an Eversource ID badge.
Equally troubling is what seems to be a trend toward suppliers targeting elderly and low-income customers. One of our customers who lives in a multi-unit apartment complex noted that someone claiming to be with Eversource went door-to-door throughout the building. The individual instructed our customer to provide her electric bill, took information from it, and then enrolled her with a new supplier without her consent. Yet another customer noted that someone came to the door and told her she needed to switch energy suppliers because of a past-due balance. And in once instance, a customer in subsidized housing informed us that her price for electricity with a competitive supplier rose by 74 percent in 11 months.
We feel strongly that the preying on electricity customers by unscrupulous competitive suppliers and marketers must stop. For our part, we work closely with local and national consumer protection organizations, law enforcement, and the media to get the word out that we do not solicit – either by phone or door-to-door – on behalf of competitive energy suppliers. We also routinely post warnings and reminders on our social media channels. Though we’ve made headway in informing our customers about these and other scams perpetrated on unsuspecting consumers, we feel the time has come for legislative action.
Two consumer watchdog agencies – the Office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and the National Consumer Law Center – have recently issued studies highlighting the magnitude of the problem that exists across the Commonwealth. Together these reports cite staggering cost statistics and examples of deceptive practices used against energy customers.
The attorney general’s office looked at two years of residential electricity pricing from competitive suppliers and found consumers paid nearly $180 million in extra costs above the basic service prices for electricity the utilities procure on behalf of their customers. And, similar to the dramatic increase in customer calls about supplier practices we’ve seen here at Eversource, calls to the attorney general’s office registering complaints about competitive suppliers have skyrocketed in recent years. In their recent analysis, Healey’s office identified numerous allegations of unfair or deceptive practices, not only here in Massachusetts but in states across the country that have a deregulated electricity supply market for residential customers.
We support the efforts of the Legislature’s Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy to thoroughly review the competitive energy supply market in Massachusetts. We also applaud the work of the attorney general, the Department of Public Utilities, and the National Consumer Law Center to bring to light the issues causing most concern among consumers with the existing residential energy supply marketplace.We call for swift changes to better protect consumers from becoming prey to deceptive supplier activity. We recommend increased transparency, with every electric bill referencing the competitive supplier’s rate and contrasting it with the local basic service price. Eversource implemented this change in Connecticut and our customers are very appreciative of the additional information. We also support strong steps to eliminate the targeting by competitive suppliers of elderly and low-income customers, and firmly believe increased oversight by state regulators and consumer watchdogs is necessary to more closely monitor practices and pricing.
The time has come to rein-in unregulated competitive suppliers who unfairly market their product through misrepresentation and deceptive, predatory actions. We stand ready to assist in those efforts to protect our customers from what has become a pervasive and increasingly troubling problem.