‘Alternative’ suppliers scam homeowners into higher electricity bills

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CHICAGO -- Last February, we told you how natural gas was experiencing a 15-year low and alternative suppliers were likely not delivering the best deals when it comes to home heating.

Now it's time to take a look at your electric bill as summer settles in and customers are cranking up their a/c.

You have to be careful because getting scammed is just too common in the industry. But here's some good news: As of June 1 -yesterday- ComEd's price for electricity went down by 11%. That's a 5-year low.

So consider reviewing your bill if you are with an alternative supplier, but beware: one wrong move now could leave you paying. And paying. And paying. Just ask Jasmine Willis White.

"I shouldn't have to juggle between whether my kids are gonna eat or whether we are gonna be in the dark," said the Elgin resident.

Yes, this 31-year-old mother of six says she was swindled. She wants to provide for her growing family, but she says some alternative electric companies are making that pretty hard.

Jasmine Willis White was a ComEd customer two years ago when an alternative supplier called “Public Power” came knocking. Months later it was “Liberty Power.” Then “IDT Energy” tried to get her to buy into their plan and switch.

"I didn't really think I switched it, I didn't sign anything, they just kept promising me this and that,” she said.

Each time, she thought her conversations were innocent. She was inquisitive. But salespeople were suddenly armed with her account number, her name and address from her very own bill, so that scamming - called "slamming" - ultimately left her in debt.

Her rate for February: 58% higher than ComEd's. In March, she overpaid by $100 because she was with an alternative supplier where the rates weren't as good.

At its worst the Whites were stuck with $2,000 in unpaid electric bills. Her bills should be closer to $200. ComEd was delivering the electricity, but other alternative companies were supplying it and the Whites had no idea.

“We're trying to get out of low income, out of this neighborhood. Every time we try to save, we got another bill for $600 in the mail,” Jasmine Willis White said.

So Jim Chilsen from the watchdog group Citizens Utility Board is helping the Whites recoup what they can. And others flirting with the idea of alternative electricity need to be armed with the right information.

"The bottom line is that in this market ComEd is likely your best bet,” Chilsen said.

It’s the best bet because right now electricity has dropped from 6.987 cents/kWh to 6.19 cents/kWh. 6.19 cents is the price to compare to alternative suppliers.

The "slamming" in the industry is not legal, but is seen often says the people at CUB. Keep an eye out for obvious signs of deceit at your front door or over the phone. And ask the right questions that could cost you if you don't.

Chilsen said key questions to ask are: Is this an introductory rate? When does that introductory rate end? And what will be the new rate?

Chilsen says also, ask about monthly fees and exit fees. And: "Unless you are absolutely sure you want to sign up for an electricity deal, don't give out your account number or your bill to just anyone who comes to your door.”

A potentially deceptive salesperson- and they are out there- can sign you up without your permission just by glancing at your bill. Just ask Jasmine Willis White. The damage was so deep she’s worried every day about losing what she has and with a household full of kids.

"I actually buy candles, not just to smell them, but I buy them because I know any second we could be cut off,” she said.

Willis White's dispute is still in limbo. Currently CUB is helping her switch back to ComEd, her original electricity supplier.

If you want to shop around when it comes to electricity, and CUB encourages you to do so -know the rates right now. Look below for ways to compare and calculate rates.

Anyone on a community power deal should revisit their electricity bill, too. At one time, alternative suppliers may have delivered major cost savings, but rates dropped so much, ComEd may deserve another look.

For more resources, visit:
CUB's Power Calculator
CUB’s fact sheet on alternative supplier offers