Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel

Consumers' Corner

AUGUST 2016

In This Issue:


Federal regulators protect electric consumers

On April 27, 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a ruling that protects Ohio customers of FirstEnergy and AEP from higher charges that would have been above the market price of electricity. FERC ruled that rate plans proposed by those electric utilities and approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) are not valid unless the utilities apply for and receive federal approval. The FirstEnergy and AEP plans would have required several million Ohioans to subsidize old power plants that could not compete effectively in the electric market.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) projected that subsidies to FirstEnergy could cost consumers between $3.6 and $5.15 billion, or between $800 and $1,100 per consumer. OCC projected that subsidies to AEP could cost consumers between $1.9 and $3.1 billion, or between $700 and $1,000 per consumer.

Those who asked FERC to protect Ohio customers included the Electric Power Supply Association, the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, and the Northwest Ohio Aggregation Coalition. FERC has the responsibility to ensure effective competition in the nation’s wholesale electric markets. At this time of prices that are at historic lows in the energy markets, the Consumers’ Counsel wants Ohioans to receive the benefit of lower prices in their monthly electric bills.

OCC continues to advocate for consumers—and the competitive markets that serve consumers—in the cases for the FirstEnergy and AEP rate plans at the PUCO. As we go to press with this newsletter, FirstEnergy requested a “rehearing” where it has made a new proposal that it believes avoids FERC’s control. This new proposal for consumers to subsidize it is strikingly similar to the original proposal that concerned FERC.

OCC projects that the new proposal would similarly cost consumers about $3.6 billion, or $800 per consumer. FirstEnergy also has made an alternative proposal that is a costlier version of the PUCO Staff’s new proposal for Ohioans to subsidize FirstEnergy. Like what we project for FirstEnergy’s main proposal, this FirstEnergy alternative would cost consumers billions of dollars in subsidy payments.

Meanwhile, AEP has responded to the FERC ruling by proposing a smaller version of its original subsidy request. But AEP said it would be OK with FirstEnergy’s new approach (for billions in subsidy payments), if FirstEnergy gains the PUCO’s approval.

OCC and others have asked FERC to review FirstEnergy’s new proposal, under FERC’s authority to ensure fair competition. OCC will continue to seek protections for consumers against the utilities’ proposals for Ohioans to subsidize their businesses.


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Are you being scammed? Ohioans are at risk

Every day, consumers are being slammed, crammed, and disconnected from their utility services because of scammers. For consumers answering multiple robocalls a day, it comes as no surprise. The constant barrage of scams often target utility consumers, requiring everyone to pay attention when buying products and services over the phone. Fortunately, scams can be recognized and prevented.

The Ohio Attorney General’s office and state utility companies have identified several scams affecting consumers. The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel has resources to help consumers understand and avoid these common scams.

Shut-off scams occur when scammers pretend to be affiliated with the telephone company and threaten to disconnect service if payment is not made immediately by credit card. However, utility companies do not abruptly require consumers to make immediate payments over the phone. Utility companies offer several established payment methods and are required to notify consumers in advance of a payment deadline. Consumers should avoid giving personal information, like credit card numbers, to people over the phone.

Caller ID spoofing is when scammers use “spoofing” technology to change the text or phone number displayed on caller ID. This makes calls seem credible and can trick people into giving away personal information. If you receive a suspicious call seeking personal information, hang up and call the phone number listed on your bill, in the phone book, or on your utility’s website.

Slamming occurs when a consumer is switched to a new telephone carrier without permission. This is simple for scammers; all they need is a consumer’s name and telephone number and they can give a notice to the telephone company that the consumer has agreed to change carriers. If this happens to you, contact your telephone company and inform them that you did not authorize the service change. To avoid getting slammed, consumers should:

  • know who their long-distance carrier is;
  • review bills for any unexpected charges; and
  • request a “carrier freeze” with their phone company.

Visit OCC’s website for a fact sheet with more tips on how to avoid being slammed.

Cramming occurs when consumers are charged for a phone service they did not request. Victims of cramming should contact their phone company and request that the unwanted charges be removed. To avoid getting crammed, consumers should:

  • read the fine print before filling out contest forms, surveys, or coupons;
  • review bills for any unexpected charges;
  • educate children and other individuals who make calls about such charges;
  • add a third-party billing block to their account;
  • be cautious about unfamiliar toll-free numbers; and
  • use discretion if told to enter codes, leave their name, or answer “yes” to prompts over the phone.

Visit OCC’s website for a fact sheet with more tips on how to avoid being crammed.

Robocalls and telemarketing calls are not just a nuisance for consumers. Consumers throughout the U.S. lose $350 million a year to phone scams, according to the Consumers Union. To avoid unwanted callers, register for the Do-Not-Call registry and check if your number is registered at the Federal Trade Commission’s website. If you have been registered for more than 31 days, you can also file a complaint against the unwanted caller on the FCC’s website. OCC has more information about Do-Not-Call national and state protection for consumers online.

To avoid becoming a victim of scams, consumers should use discretion when sharing personal information over the phone and with door-to-door salespersons. Sharing personal information like account numbers, credit cards, and Social Security numbers with an unfamiliar salesperson could make you vulnerable to fraud.

When speaking with a salesperson, record his or her name, company, address, and phone number. Verify his or her credentials with the company they are representing. Ask questions and request information on the product or service in writing. Do not commit to anything over the telephone or at the door.

Consumers can access the list of known telephone scams at the Ohio Attorney General’s website or at their utility’s website. Consumers can also file a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General’s office.


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Resellers of utility services

Are you looking to rent an apartment or buy a condo? Do you receive utility bills from a company other than your local utility company? If so, you could be served by a reseller of utility services.

Reselling (sometimes known as submetering) occurs when a landlord or third party purchases utility service, electricity, water, or sewage, and resells that service to consumers by using a submeter. A submeter records the usage for each individual housing unit. Submetering happens in apartment and condominium complexes as well as other housing developments, affecting an estimated 30,000 Ohio households of all income levels.

Submetering companies generally charge prices for utility services that are similar to the rates charged by the local utility. But at least two submetering companies have engaged in the same overcharging of utility consumers in central Ohio for electricity, water, and sewage services. These companies have added extra and sometimes unexplained charges for their services, inflating bills by as much as 40 percent. Customers of submetering companies are also denied from shopping for alternative energy suppliers, participating in utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs, and several special payment programs.

In 2013, The Columbus Dispatch launched an investigation into the reselling of electricity. In a three-article series, The Dispatch featured stories of Ohioans struggling to pay high, submetered utility bills. This series of articles drew the attention of several state representatives in the Ohio legislature, and consumer protection bills were introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives to resolve the issue. The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, Bruce Weston, has testified before the Ohio House of Representatives and filed briefs with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) on the issue of consumer protection from submetering.

The public’s attention was once again drawn to submetering in April 2015 when a Columbus resident of North Bank Park filed a complaint against Nationwide Energy Partners at the PUCO.

The Dispatch published another series of articles on submetering in April 2016. That same month, OCC filed a complaint against AEP-Ohio at the PUCO. OCC requested that the PUCO immediately stop AEP-Ohio’s sale of electricity to submeterers and ultimately ban submetering. OCC believes that Ohio’s residential utility consumers who are submetered deserve the same protections and benefits that other Ohio residential utility customers receive from regulated utilities. With the renewed awareness of submetering, there may be further legislative activity in 2016.

“Protection is needed for consumers who, in this niche market, lack the benefit of regulation or market forces that the General Assembly instituted for other utility consumers,” said Weston in testimony in 2014. As we go to press, state Rep. Mike Duffey has introduced new legislation (House Bill 589) for consumer protection regarding reselling.

For more information on submetering, including testimony from the Consumers’ Counsel and his seven principles for protecting consumers against submetering, visit OCC’s webpage for submetering.


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It’s fair season!

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel will have booths at four county fairs, the Farm Science Review, and the Ohio State Fair this year. We look forward to seeing Ohioans this summer!

Our fair season began at the Clinton County Fair on July 9 in Wilmington, Ohio.

  • Our Outreach & Education staff attended the fair and provided useful information to Ohioans regarding their utilities.

The Ohio State Fair started on July 27 and ran through August 7 in Columbus, Ohio.

  • Our staff interacted with more than a thousand Ohioans, working to answer any utility questions for consumers.

After the Ohio State Fair, we made an appearance at the 158th Hartford Fair in Licking County, which ran from August 7-13.

  • Our staff was eager to educate consumers and provide Ohioans all the tools they may need to save on their utility bills at the “Biggest Little Fair in the World”!

If you have yet to meet any of our outstanding Outreach & Education staff, you have an opportunity to at the Allen County Fair. The Allen County Fair will take place August 19-27 in Lima, Ohio.

  • Our staff members at the Allen County Fair will be able to provide information on a variety of topics including: utility assistance, consumer rights, understanding utility bills, energy efficiency, and more.
  • OCC will also be offering an opportunity to sign up for our free email newsletter, Consumers’ Corner. Invite friends and family to sign up and receive useful information that could help them save energy and money.
  • We encourage Ohioans to follow us on our Twitter account (@OhioUtilityUser) for updates and more.

After the Allen County Fair, our team will be serving Ohioans at the Wayne County Fair from September 10-15.

  • The OCC booth will be staffed by our dedicated and friendly staff, so feel free to stop by whenever you like!

Our team will attend the Farm Science Review from September 20-22, located at the intersection of US 40 and State Route 38 in London, Ohio.

  • Join OCC and learn the latest agricultural innovations from experts from the Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences!

Take a moment to stop by our booth and chat with our team at any of these fairs!


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Understand your options in electric and natural gas

Consumers are bombarded with marketing on the phone, at the door, and in the mail. Have you been approached about switching to an energy marketer? It’s common for Ohio utility consumers to be approached by energy marketers for their electricity and natural gas. Generally, there is no guarantee that consumers will save money by switching from their utility to a marketer.

Consumers can choose who supplies their electric or natural gas service. Energy marketers compete against utilities to enroll consumers in their energy supply program. If you choose to purchase from an energy marketer, be sure to make an informed choice.

To see if switching to an energy marketer is right for you, start by checking the “Price to Compare” on your electric bill and the “Standard Choice Offer”. These two rates are the amount your utility company charges. To save consumers money, a marketer would have to offer the same service at a lower rate. Pay attention to every bill because the Price to Compare and the Standard Choice Offer are different and can change every month. Refer to several bills to calculate an average before comparing with a marketer’s offer. Marketers may also charge additional fees for their service.

Be aware that if you already receive natural gas from a marketer or aggregated community, your Standard Choice Offer will not appear on your gas bill. To find your Standard Choice Offer, contact your gas marketer, visit your marketer’s website, or review a current rate comparison chart to learn the current rate.

Switching to a marketer does not guarantee savings. For instance, in the case of natural gas, market rates for natural gas have been historically low in Ohio, and very few natural gas marketers offer lower rates than Columbia, Dominion, and Vectren gas companies. Ohioans likely would not save money by switching to a gas marketer at this time. If there is a lower rate from a marketer, it may only be available for a short time.

Another possibility is joining an aggregated community. When deciding whether to opt-in to an aggregated community, it is still important to check the Standard Choice Offer and Price to Compare. Some communities are able to obtain lower rates, but savings are still not guaranteed.

The rates offered by marketers will either be higher or lower than your Price to Compare (electric) and Standard Choice Offer (natural gas). It will also be either a fixed or variable rate. A fixed rate will remain the same, per unit of service, throughout the length of the contract. Variable rates can change month-to-month.

To protect consumers, marketers cannot use false, deceptive, or misleading statements when offering any products or services. But offer terms can still be difficult to analyze. As a precaution, do not show your utility bills or provide your account number to marketers unless you have made the decision to enroll.

Consumers can enroll in a marketer’s agreement by signing a contract. But there are still more questions that a consumer should ask before signing.

  • Is there an enrollment fee or early cancellation fee?
  • When will I begin receiving service from the marketer? Does this date overlap with my current service contract?
  • What is the length of the contract?
  • Is the contract transferrable if I move before the contract expires? Is there a transfer fee?
  • Will the agreement automatically renew at the end of the contract period? Will I be notified? What will the new rate be?
  • If the rate is variable, how often will it change and how is the rate calculated?
  • Will I receive two bills (one from the marketer and one from my utility company), or just one bill?
  • Who should I contact with billing questions?

If you decide to sign a contract with a marketer, your utility company will mail you a confirmation notice. Consumers have seven days to cancel their contract. After seven days, termination fees may apply.

Because energy choice can be difficult to understand, be cautious when considering energy options. OCC has resources to help you understand consumer protections in energy choice and a guide for understanding door-to-door marketers.


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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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