Contact: Marty Berkowitz
COLUMBUS, Ohio – October 21, 2010 – Interstate Gas Supply Inc. (IGS) has subjected residential Columbia Gas of Ohio customers to a deceptive marketing campaign, according to the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC).
The residential utility consumer advocate today filed a complaint at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) along with Stand Energy Corp., Border Energy, the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, alleging IGS, a competitive retail natural gas supplier, engaged in unfair and misleading sales tactics. According to the complaint, IGS mailed materials to Columbia Gas customers using a trade name and logo which customers easily could mistake as the utility. IGS recently purchased a three-year license to use the trade name and Columbia logo from NiSource Inc. NiSource is the parent company of Columbia Gas of Ohio and neither is affiliated with IGS.
The OCC and the other marketers have asked the PUCO to require the retailer to stop using the Columbia Retail Energy name and logo in any marketing until it has been determined whether the practice is unfair or deceptive; identify customers who have signed with the retailer as a result of the mailing and offer them a chance to opt out of any contract arrangement, and pay a $10,000 per day forfeiture for each violation. The parties also have asked the PUCO to conditionally rescind the retailer’s certificate contingent on IGS not committing similar violations in the future.
“The OCC has been contacted by numerous confused consumers, who have reported receiving a mailing addressed to ‘Columbia Gas of Ohio customers’ that did not originate from the gas company,” Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander said. “People may be responding to the letter believing they are dealing with the utility when, in fact, they are contacting a company that has no business affiliation with Columbia whatsoever. This creates the possibility of customers unwittingly entering into a contract at a higher rate than what the gas company offers.”
Among the allegations in the complaint are the following:
The retailer used its new trade name and the Columbia Gas logo before the PUCO issued a certificate permitting them to do so;
The Columbia Retail Energy name and Columbia logo appeared on the return envelope, addressed to “Columbia Gas of Ohio Natural Gas Customer” with no disclaimer on the envelope to indicate that the marketer is not affiliated with the utility;
The phrase “Important Natural Gas Information” as directed to Columbia Gas customers, might cause confusion and anxiety for individuals who mistakenly think the letter is from the gas company;
In the mailing, the retailer claimed its fixed rate is superior to Columbia’s variable standard service offer (SSO) based on a five-year average; the current Columbia SSO, however, is well below the retailer’s current fixed-rate offer; and
The retailer claimed to be seeking more efficient ways to deliver natural gas to customers; however, the utility is solely responsible for this function.
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