Watchdog: Complaints yield little for utility customer

North American Power, with 60,000 electric customers in Connecticut, says it went out of its way in December to warn its variable rate customers that major price hikes were imminent, but some of its customers are still unhappy with the company.

"In December 2013, North American Power proactively notified (by email and postal mail) all of its Connecticut customers with a variable rate plan to inform them of a forecasted increase in the wholesale cost of electricity. We encouraged those customers who wanted price certainty to contact us and consider changing to a fixed rate plan to manage their energy bill for the rest of this winter and beyond," North American Power spokeswoman Tiffany Eddy said.

"Many customers took advantage of this offer and switched to a fixed rate plan," she said. "This special customer notice was not required, but was part of North American Power's commitment to 100 percent customer awareness of the potential impact on energy costs."

And the company said it always sends a notice to all of the state's fixed-rate customers whose fixed-rate terms are about to expire. This scheduled notice informs customers to call to enroll in another fixed rate plan, to hear about other options or, if they choose, to do nothing and roll over to a variable rate plan in keeping with the terms of their original agreement.

However, Christina Plourd of Tolland who was on a variable rate plan, said she never received an email or a letter with those warnings.

"This is my biggest complaint. They are not very good communicators," Plourd, whose home is heated by electricity, told CtWatchdog.

It was only when her electric generation bill almost tripled that she noticed the spike and switched to Connecticut Light & Power. In the meanwhile, she paid hundreds of dollars extra to North American Power.

Besides complaining to CtWatchdog, Plourd wrote a letter to state utility regulators urging them to re-regulate the state's electricity market. Both the regulators and the state General Assembly - facing hundreds of complaints against dozens of suppliers - are considering tightening the regulation of electric suppliers, requiring more transparency as well as allowing customers to more quickly transfer their accounts back to CL&P or to United Illuminating.

Plourd tried unsuccessfully to contact the salesman who convinced her to switch from CL&P to North American. She blames part of the problem on North American and other suppliers whose marking program relies largely on hundreds of consumers to sell electricity to their friends and neighbors in return for rebates and commissions.

The Better Business Bureau also has problems with North American's marketing and says it warned the company in 2012 to clean up its act:

"BBB has received a pattern of consumer complaints alleging that North American Power and Gas' (NAP) advertising and telemarketing representatives misrepresent the savings customers will receive when switching from their current electric service providers to NAP service.

"Other complaints allege that NAP telemarketers fail to properly identify themselves as NAP representatives in order to deceptively switch consumers from their current electric service to NAP's service.

More than 100 complaints

"BBB brought these matters to the attention of NAP in October 2012, asking the company to address the underlying causes of said complaints. Although NAP responded, stating that its policies prohibit misrepresentation of its services by NAP representatives, similar complaints continue to be received by BBB."

North American had 93 advertising complaints against it with the BBB and 59 complaints about billing and collection issues over the past three years.

At least North American responded to the BBB complaints.

Another supplier, Discount Power, failed to respond to 29 of the 35 complaints filed against it.

North American did not specifically respond to the BBB criticism but said, "We have a referring customer channel that encourages people to reach out to their friends and family, send them to napower.com to find out more information on our plans and where, after review, they have the choice to enroll.

"We take all feedback from our customers very seriously, and respond appropriately to improve our service and products we offer our customers."

Reimbursement sought

Plourd also contacted North American Power, demanding that the company reimburse her for the difference between what it charged and the standard CL&P rate.

The company refused, but changed its mind and refunded her hundreds of dollars after she posted her complaint on CtWatchdog.com and on Facebook.

North American also provided refunds to Janet Grander of Bristol and to Sarah Khan of Sandy Hook after CtWatchdog sent their complaints to the company.

The company says it had no choice but to raise prices this winter:

"This has been one of the harshest winters in more than 20 years. Because of this record cold, electricity costs in the Northeast and Midwest increased dramatically. The increased usage of electricity has caused an energy shortage and driven prices to close to record levels. As a result, many variable rate customers of both suppliers and utilities across the country have received higher bills than expected."

george@ctwatchdog.com

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