Monday, November 5, 2007

A cleverly disguised telemarketer

I hate having a new phone number. Even though I've added my number to the FTC's Do Not Call registry, it takes up to 90 days for your number to actually be added. In the meantime, telemarketers can call. And call. And call. And with an ever-shrinking pool of numbers it's a waterfall effect. The calls start at about 7 PM and don't stop until almost 10 PM.

Every once in awhile I make the mistake of just answering the phone without checking the caller ID. Friday night was one of them. I picked up the phone expecting friend M to be on the other end, but instead it was Con-Ed. Or so I thought.

Now, I'm on antibiotics (turns out I have the flu) and slightly delirious, and the woman on the other end had a pretty thick accent. But when she initially told me she was calling me about my power service, I thought that there was a problem. Great, I thought, they're going to shut of my gas again. Turns out the call was actually from a company called Accent Energy. They were calling to pitch their alternative energy program. The official term is ESCO and Con-Ed has partnered with about 15 ESCOs.

An ESCO is another company that has paid for the right to supply power to a grid, in this case Con-Ed customers. The power grids are so old and overtaxed in this part of the country that this makes sense in theory. Either a power company with excess power or an independent co-op with excess energy should be able to sell power to Con-Ed in order to keep our homes lit. Also, ESCOs use renewable energy like wind and hydroelectric power which is great. Of course, when I was on the phone I didn't know any of this yet.

My drugged brain was still processing that there was in fact no problem with my power, so I did not hang up on the woman from Accent Energy. She asked if I had read the alternative energy supplier fact sheet in my Con-Ed bill. Nope, I replied. She asked me if I was fixed-rate or variable with Con-Ed. I had no idea. She said it was okay and continued. The pitch sounded pretty good: 7% off your first two bills. That would only mean about $4 for me, but for a household that would save some precious pennies. The whole pitch took less than two minutes. It sounded great as I understood it, so I told her to go ahead.

She told me to hold while she transferred both of us to an automated system. That's when alarm bells started going off in my head. Everything in NYC is so cold and bureaucratic, and Time Warner had made me do this before I could get my cable installed. I realized I was about to agree to some serious stuff. The woman came back and told me it was about to start. She said I needed to finish the process in order for it to be complete. That would be an important fact.

At first, the woman did all of the speaking. She stated my name, address, phone number, and Con-Ed account number. She stated her name and associate ID number. Then there were a bunch of questions I was supposed to say yes to. I don't remember the exact questions, but it was something like "is your account number blah blah" which I said yes to; "do you live at blah blah" which I said yes to. Then it was "Do you understand that by agreeing to switch to Accent Energy your rate will initially be fixed for the first three months and then be variable after that, and that Accent Energy rates and Con-Ed rates may differ?"

Bingo. "No no no no NO!" I said. The woman asked me why I said no, and I told her I did not agree to variable rates. She told me Con-Ed had variable rates, but I told her I was no longer interested, and we hung up. Then I did my research. I think the Con-Ed ESCO page says it all...

"These ESCOs have indicated they will supply electricity and gas to residential and small commerical (SC2) customers. They may decide to change their services without notifying us to update this page. ... Switching to a different supplier is your choice. You are not required to choose an ESCO and there are no deadlines for making a move to an ESCO."
That's all I needed to read. Any time a page has a bunch of disclaimers on it (and there are more on the page) it's bad news. The problem is that these energy companies aren't subject to the same regulations as Con-Ed.

That means the ESCOs can:
  • Raise your rates at any time, with little to no warning
  • Decide to pull out of your market, leaving you with no power
  • Call you a lot and send salesman to your door (!!)
In addition, the rate is usually about $.02 more per kWh. You also lose your ability to call Con-Ed customer service for anything except emergency situations.

I have been looking for more information about ESCOs for days, but haven't really found much besides lists of NYC/Con-Ed partners. No one with good experiences or bad experiences to reprot. But I really hate that this company called me and made everything sound peachy and only through the fine print did I find out that this was a Chase-esque deal.

What makes me even madder is that as someone who is all for renewable energy, why hasn't the city government taken steps to regulate this? Who is going to willingly accept paying more for energy just because it's renewable? It needs to be the same price as Con-Ed and there needs to be local infrastructure in place to support it. Mayor Bloomberg is all about environmental issues right now...well, Bloomie, here's one that's half done. Sweep in there and finish this sucker up right.

Oh, and I have no idea how to tell if my Con-Ed rate is fixed or variable. Maybe once I get over this flu. Cover your mouths, kids, and wash your hands a lot.

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