Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel

Consumers' Corner

SUMMER 2015
newsletter

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FCC authorizes new ways to deter telemarketer "robocalls"—but consumers may still lack adequate protections

Automated sales pitches that find their way to your landline telephone or cell phone have annoyed consumers with the likes of a blaring cruise ship horn and "Rachel at card services." These sales calls are known as robocalls, where "robo" means robot.

Consumers over the years have voiced their displeasure about robocalls to the Federal Communications Commission ("FCC"). In fact, these intrusive calls have been the top complaint to the FCC with more than 215,000 complaints in the last year alone. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler noted that one complainant received 4,700 unwanted texts over a period of six months. Last September, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and attorneys general in 39 other states asked the FCC to allow phone companies to legally block telemarketing calls if a customer requests that protection.

The FCC responded in June with a new plan to allow phone companies to prevent computer-generated sales calls and unwanted text messages from reaching consumers. However, just because call-blocking technology exists and phone companies now have FCC permission to use it does not mean the phone companies will block robocalls. The FCC order does not require phone companies to block telemarketer robocalls and texts.

The new FCC rules, issued on June 18, 2015, make it clear that consumers should be able to halt telemarketing calls by simply telling companies not to call again. Consumers need not fill out forms to stop the calls. The rules close loopholes that might enable robocallers to bypass consumer consent requirements based on the technology being used. The FCC will allow text messages to be sent to consumers, without their prior consent, for emergency messages from health care providers or banks.

Here are some tips for trying to block unwanted calls:
„ Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry. It is free, your number is never taken off the list, and it will at least stop law-abiding solicitors. This service is for both cell phones and landlines.

„ If you've been on the Do Not Call Registry for a month or longer and still get calls, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at http://ow.ly/R2DQi. Also, you can complain to the FCC at http://ow.ly/R05qG. If the call comes from an identifiable business, you could also report it to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

„ In the past, some people have recommended certain number combinations or the pound key to delete yourself from a robocall registry. But the BBB has suggested that you hang up the phone without responding or pressing any numbers.

„ Some services, such as Nomorobo, PrivacyStar, and Truecaller, have been offered to deter robocalls. But before purchasing, check whether they work with traditional landline phones or offer the protection you're seeking. You can read about robocalls and what you can do to deter them in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

You can read more about protections from robocalls at http://ow.ly/R05Gf.

By Dan Doron


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Back-to-school tips for new utility consumers

photoIt's back-to-school time again! When the busy college life begins, many young students are faced with brand new challenges. Often, one of these challenges is renting an apartment. Arranging the utility services for that new apartment can also be a challenge. Being an informed consumer can give you peace-of-mind and hopefully savings on utility bills.

New customers of utility services should know who their suppliers are and their rights as a customer. In this regard, please see another article in this Newsletter, "OCC Governing Board Calls for Protecting Consumers from Higher Prices of Resold Utility Services," that describes utility services that are resold by non-utilities in some apartments, at a potentially higher price than the utility's own service.

Customers of utilities may choose a marketer to supply their electricity and/or natural gas. Alternatively, they may choose to receive service from their utility company. When considering a change to a different energy supplier, consumers should know what questions to ask and how to compare the different prices offered. Even if you are not considering a change in your energy supplier, you may be contacted by mail, phone, or at your door by an energy marketer.

Natural gas customers should be aware that their utility's price for natural gas generally has been the lowest gas price in recent years, compared to generally higher prices by gas marketers. Electricity customers should be aware that, in some areas, there recently have been fewer electricity offers from marketers that are lower in price than the electric utility's own price. Additionally, some marketer prices for electricity are "variable" and can be changed (including with a price increase) after the first month.

In a sales contact at your door, the salesperson must show a valid photo ID issued by the energy marketer. You should never show a salesperson the private information in your utility bill unless you have made the decision to switch service. It's also important to remember that you do not have to switch to a marketer. Using the "price to compare" on your current electric bill can help you decide if switching to a marketer could save you money.

In addition, it is wise to plan in advance how you will pay for your monthly bills and who will be listed on the utility account for payment responsibility. If you are in college, you may be leasing or renting an apartment with one or more roommates. Consider including all the tenants on the utility account to avoid one person being completely liable for payment. Also, suppliers provide different types of payment plans to consumers. So be sure to learn about each plan before you decide what is best for you.

Once your electric or natural gas service has started, there are other ways to save money. For example, beware of using so-called "vampire power." Vampire power occurs in various electronics that use energy even when set to "off." Some of these include, but are not limited to:

  • Microwaves
  • Mobile phone chargers
  • Printers
  • Room air conditioners

Where practical, unplug items that are not in use. Consider using a power strip to make it easier to control multiple appliances at one time.

When considering ways to save money at the start of a new school year, think about how you're using energy. The Ohio Consumers' Counsel offers materials on its website (www.occ.ohio.gov) to inform consumers about choosing affordable, quality utility services with options to control their utility usage.

By Myron Goldsmith and Savannah Long


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OCC Governing Board calls for protecting consumers from higher prices of resold utility services

resolutionThe Ohio General Assembly and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio ("PUCO") should protect Ohioans from high prices for master-metered and/or submetered utility services, according to a Resolution adopted by a vote of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel ("OCC") Governing Board on July 21, 2015. The utility services in question are resold to consumers by their landlord, property owner, or a third party associated with their housing.

Many consumers who reside in apartments, condominiums, and other housing communities are not billed for their public utility service by the utility company. Instead, these residents are charged by their landlord, property owner, or other third party for utility services received at a master meter and/or submeter. Some residential consumers may not be aware when signing a lease or a housing agreement that the utility services they use will be resold to them through a master meter and/or submeter, at potentially higher prices than what the utility company charges.

In October 2013, The Columbus Dispatch published its investigation revealing that the charges for master-metered and/or submetered utility services can result in as much as a 40 percent increase in utility charges compared to charges for service directly from the utility company.

During legislative hearings last year, the Consumers' Counsel and other consumer advocate groups proposed pricing and other protections for consumers who purchase master-metered and/or submetered utility services. Ohio Representative Mike Duffey was a sponsor last year of House Bill 662, which was passed by the Ohio House Public Utilities Committee as the legislative session came to a close. The Consumers' Counsel and others are continuing to work for the passage of a consumer protection law on these issues.

By Sydney Gale


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Farmer, teacher, consumer advocate: OCC Board Member Fred Cooke

Stuart YoungOhioans may have several connections to Fred Cooke. They are protected by his volunteer service on the Ohio Consumers' Counsel Governing Board that serves residential utility consumers. They may have attended a school course he teaches. And they may be customers of a restaurant where his chickens are on the menu.

Mr. Cooke developed a passion for agriculture while helping his father on the family farm in Shelby. Today, under Mr. Cooke's stewardship, that farm has grown to more than 1,200 acres and has expanded with a new business of raising chickens.

His farm experiences of hard work and business judgment make him a valuable asset to the Ohio Consumers' Counsel Governing Board. There, since 2013, he has served Ohio consumers regarding the price and quality of their electric, natural gas, telephone, and water services. By law, the bipartisan Board is made up of nine members; three each representing residential consumers, organized labor, and family farmers.

The Ohio Attorney General appoints Consumers' Counsel Board members to three-year terms.

Mr. Cooke earned a Master of Science degree in agriculture education from The Ohio State University. Drawing upon his experience in farming, Mr. Cooke has taught agriculture courses for more than 30 years. His efforts have contributed to doubling and even tripling enrollment in high school agriculture programs.

"I think there's just a big movement right now in our county and our state and our nation for eating healthy, for supporting locally grown produce, knowing where your food comes from." Mr. Cooke's experience in public service began long before his time on the Ohio Consumers' Counsel Governing Board. A 30-year member of the Richland County Farm Bureau, he has served as president of that County's Farm Bureau Advisory Board and as a member of the Development Committee.

Mr. Cooke also served as chairperson of the Richland County Organization Committee. It was through this Committee that he helped develop the Richland County Farm to Plate Program. He is a Board Member of the Shelby Home and Public Health League and also a member of the Malabar Farm Foundation.

When asked about the Farm to Plate Program, Mr. Cooke stated, "The local farm bureau sponsors chefs for 5-6 sessions at the Shelby County Farmers' Market where chefs use local produce to prepare dishes. We invite local citizens to watch the programs and sample the dishes. The Farm to Plate program was established to encourage healthy eating to consumers in the area."

At the Ohio Consumers' Counsel we are fortunate to have guidance from Mr. Cooke and his Board colleagues for our work as Ohio's residential utility consumer advocate. We are thankful that Mr. Cooke makes the time in his busy schedule to assist Ohio's residential utility consumers by his service on the Board.

Mr. Cooke told us that: "I believe my most rewarding experience serving on the OCC Board has been broadening my scope on how utilities and consumers are involved in everyday life." In this regard, we appreciate working with Mr. Cooke toward helping Ohioans in their everyday use of utility services.

By Myron Goldsmith and Sydney Gale


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Water conservation can lower your utility bills

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC), the residential utility consumer advocate, recommends that consumers consider ways to reduce water usage. Reducing usage can help to save money on water bills.

While outdoor activities in warmer weather can increase consumers' use of water, a majority of their water usage still occurs indoors. Leaking faucets are a major source of water wasting. Check faucets for leaks. A small leak may not look like a problem, but you could be paying unnecessarily for many gallons of wasted water each month. Here is a web link to a "drip calculator" by the U.S. Geological Survey — http://ow.ly/QCBCY.

When using water from a faucet, do not let the water run while you are washing dishes, brushing your teeth, or shaving. To further lower water usage, consumers should use dishwashers and make sure each load is full. Using a dishwasher, rather than washing dishes by hand, can lead to additional savings on utility bills. Running the dishwasher once a day uses about 17 gallons of hot water, while washing dishes by hand uses about 30 gallons total.

Gardening is a popular activity, which is why it is no surprise that many consumers see a rise in their water bill with this activity. However, there are many ways to cut back on water usage while still keeping the garden looking good. One of the simplest ways is by keeping the weather in mind. By watching the weather, you can avoid watering your garden if rain is likely. Additionally, try to water flower beds during the cooler times of the day or on cloudy days. This approach helps to avoid rapid evaporation and allows more water to reach the roots. Weeds compete with other plants for water, so regularly tend to weeds to conserve water.

Swimming pools and car-washing use significant amounts of water. Cover the swimming pool when not in use. Covers can help reduce water losses through evaporation. Also remember to turn the hose off in between rinses when washing your car. These simple tips can turn into savings on your next utility bill.

For more information on ways to conserve water, you can view the Consumers' Counsel's Guide to Water Conservation fact sheet online at http://ow.ly/R2WNn.

By Myron Goldsmith


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Home Energy Audits still available for natural gas customers of Columbia and Dominion

As we approach fall, now is a great time to consider having an energy audit performed to determine if you can save money on your next winter heating bills. A home energy audit can help consumers improve their comfort and reduce energy consumption. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a home energy audit can lead to savings of 30 percent on monthly heating costs.

The home energy audit is also known as a home energy assessment. Either way, it helps consumers identify how much energy they consume and informs them of the measures they can take to make their homes more energy efficient.

These audits are still available through Columbia Gas of Ohio and Dominion East Ohio. Each utility is offering audits at a discounted rate of $50 (a $500 retail value).

During the assessment, a certified Home Energy Auditor will use advanced diagnostic equipment for a number of tests. The auditor will test gas appliances for safety and will test for insulation levels, air leaks, and gas heating equipment efficiency. Through this assessment, the auditor can identify areas of improvement for your home energy use.

The auditor will present you with a report containing the results of the assessment. These results will include estimated utility savings and discounts available for qualified energy efficiency improvements.

In order to be eligible for this program, you must be an individually metered residential customer of Dominion East Ohio with an active account, not on the Percentage of Income Payment Plan Plus (PIPP Plus), and/or not eligible for the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). Also, you can be a Columbia Gas of Ohio customer with a gas-heated home that uses 1,000 Ccf of natural gas or more per year. (This information can be found on your bill.) Audits can be performed for customers who use less than 1,000 Ccf. However, the homes that use more than 1,000 Ccf and were built prior to the mid-1970s are better suited for more energy savings.

Save money and energy in the future by scheduling a home energy audit today.

By Sydney Gale


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QR CodeOCC Speaker Request

Representatives from OCC can speak to your group about a variety of utility issues, including consumer protections, payment assistance, electric and natural gas choice and more!

For a complete list of topics, visit: www.occ.ohio.gov/education/speaker.shtml. To request a speaker, go to www.occ.ohio.gov/contact/sbform.php.

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