Maryland must crack down on energy suppliers that entice people into bad, pricey contracts
The often aggressive pitches come in the mail or through sales people who canvas neighborhoods, knocking on doors looking for new customers. Sometimes they call on the phone with their sly spiel. Switch your utility company, they say, and see hefty savings on your gas and electric bill.
Except Maryland’s top utility customer advocate says too often these promises are empty. Instead of savings, customers are getting enticed into contracts that end up costing them more. Hefty fees, sometimes as much as $150, await anyone who tries to get out of these so-called cost saving deals.
Sky high utility bills from third party companies are costing Marylanders. Reports last year by the Office of People’s Counsel and the Abell Foundation found that deceptive marketing tactics had landed people with companies that charge them 50 to 75% more than they were paying prior. From 2014 to 2017, Maryland households paid tens of millions of dollars more per year in aggregate to third-party electricity suppliers — or about $255 million more in all than if they had stayed with their previous company.
Based on the complaints by the people’s counsel, The Public Service Commission delegated concerns about three companies to administrative law judges, who plan to hold hearings next year.
This brings us to another point. Perhaps, its time for the General Assembly to call for a study into whether deregulation has had the intended impact of increasing competition, expanding consumer choice and lowering utility prices. Under law passed in 1999, Marylanders still have their power delivered by BGE and other utilities, but can buy energy from BGE or from other private companies that own power plants or buy power from the grid on the wholesale market.
Advocates also say that some overly aggressive companies won’t take no for an answer and will sign up consumers without their permission. Identity theft is illegal, and salespeople who engage in this should be prosecuted for criminal activity.
If these companies aren’t doing anything wrong, an investigation will confirm it. But lax enforcement means we don’t know the extent of the problem. The PSC needs to do its job and get a handle on companies that may be preying on consumers with fake promises. Quite simply, the PSC needs to pay attention.