The Watchdog: Open government in Texas is getting more open thanks to new state laws

Don’t fall off your chair when you hear this, but the Texas Legislature has enacted major changes in how Texans can monitor their local, county and state governments. These changes are for the better for both officials and the public.

Texas is the first state in the nation to create a new way to monitor the work and deliberations of government officials. Each government, whether it be city council, school district, county commissioners court or a state agency, is now allowed to create an Internet message board where officials, both elected and appointed, can publicly discuss government business away from officially called meetings.

But there’s one caveat. The public now has a right to listen in, or rather read, what’s being said.

 

open government

In the past, it was illegal for government officials to discuss either in person, by phone or electronically the people’s business outside of a posted public meeting. Not to say that they didn’t do it, but they weren’t supposed to.

The new law that takes effect Sept. 1 states that governments can create a message board and place it prominently on their website. Officials can write back and forth, even deliberate with one another.

In another change that has already taken effect, any official who can’t be present for a public meeting can now video conference in and be considered part of a quorum — as long as the public can watch, too.

Picture this: Councilwoman A is away on business during the night of a council meeting. So she sets up her iPad in her hotel room and still participates. The government shows her image on a big screen in the meeting room. Councilwoman A is there, virtually.

A third big change coming Sept. 1 is that text messages, emails and other electronic messaging from either public or private accounts between elected officials will officially be part of the public record.

If two school board members text each other during a meeting about how they intend to vote, anyone has the right to request access to those messages. If they’re not handed over, that’s a violation of the state public information act.

As part of this new law, when governments outsource government services to outside vendors, communications with those vendors are now public, too.

“This was a really good session for transparency,” says Donnis Baggett of the Texas Press Association. “Transparency was a buzzword for the session. For the most part, it was a breath of fresh air compared to past sessions.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The idea for the first-in-the-nation message board came from Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin.

How public officials use the message board, if they create one, remains to be seen. Will they actually engage in frank discussions electronically in front of the public, or will they use the message board for propaganda purposes?

These new laws take the state’s open records and open meetings requirements into the 21st century, says Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“The clear understanding is, if you’re performing governmental functions, no matter the device, it’s subject to the Texas Public Information Act,” says Laura Lee Prather, an Austin attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues and worked closely with lawmakers and open government advocates to get these bills passed.

Remember that to get this information, all you have to do is write a letter to a government body requesting it. There are a few exceptions for what’s available, but most government documents are yours for the asking. Sometimes you have to pay, depending on the request and the governmental body, and sometimes you don’t.

The state’s public information act is clear about who owns these records: you do. The preamble to the Texas Public Information Act states that public servants do not have “the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

It’s our job to remind them of that. Now it’s a whole lot easier.

 The new laws

Read the new open government laws at the Texas Legislature Online website, www.capitol.state.tx.us/. Search “Legislation” by bill number and use 83R, for the 83rd regular session.

SB 1368: Declares that electronic messages on public or private accounts are available through open records requests. Takes effect Sept. 1.

SB 1297: Allows governments to create an Internet message board for public officials to deliberate away from public meetings. Takes effect Sept. 1.

HB 2414: Permits video conferencing by officials unable to be physically present at a publicly called meeting. Has become law.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

The Watchdog: Dallas man’s speakers shot, and it’s got nothing to do with cranking up a stereo

Sometimes we hear what we want to hear and not what’s actually said. That happened to John Saxon of Dallas, who says he paid for insurance when he shipped a pair of vintage stereo speakers through United Parcel Service to a buyer in Pennsylvania.

When asked what the declared value was, Saxon answered with a figure of $260. He thought he was buying insurance, but he wasn’t. He was simply declaring his shipment’s value. The “i” word is never mentioned by UPS.

Saxon learned this lesson the hard way after his speakers were delivered to the buyer in busted-up condition. UPS, so far, has refused to pay for the damage.

speakersbefore-1

John Saxon Photography
Dallas resident John Saxon shipped these Cerwin Vega speakers to a man in Pennsylvania.

 

What makes this worth telling is that the buyer, John Hoogvliet, says he witnessed a UPS delivery man roughly handle the two boxes as he pulled them off his truck.

Hoogvliet, who lives in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, told me he was eating his lunch when a brown UPS truck pulled up to his business. “Here come my beautiful speakers,” he remembered thinking excitedly.

The Cerwin Vega speakers are classics from the early 1990s known for their rich sound and detailed interior parts. But those interior parts were exterior by the time the delivery man finished with them.

Hoogvliet remembered the sound he first heard: ka-bang, ka-bang, ka-bang. The UPS man was flipping the first speaker box end over end along the length of his truck. Fragile sticker placed on the box be darned.

When Hoogvliet saw the second speaker pushed roughly across the truck floor, he yelled, “Hey, stop! You’ll mess them up internally.” (Only he used a word stronger than “mess” that The Watchdog declines to repeat.)

Hoogvliet said he helped pull the speakers off the back of the truck and helped the driver carry them inside. The driver returned to his truck and drove away.

When Hoogvliet opened the first box, he saw that the screws had popped out and the edges on all sides were fractured. The Watchdog looked at the video Hoogvliet made after delivery. I can attest to the first speaker’s sorry condition.

“It’s like murder,” said Hoogvliet, a devout music lover. “It’s like killing a classic Corvette.”

speakersruinedpair

John Saxon Photography
The speakers arrived in this deplorable condition. The recipient says he saw a UPS delivery man roughly handle the two boxes as he pulled them off his truck.

He opened the second box and noticed that it, too, had a broken front. He called UPS and reported the damage.

UPS picked up both boxes and sent them to the company’s third-party inspector that surveys damage claims. Saxon immediately refunded Hoogvliet’s complete payment of more than $500 for the speakers and shipping costs. He also filed a damage claim, which UPS denied. Now Saxon can’t get his money back.

A UPS employee told him he didn’t pack them properly. That’s the most common reason UPS won’t pay a claim. Yet Saxon said he spent more than $50 on cardboard boxes.

Saxon sent me photographs of the speakers when they arrived back in Dallas after the third-party inspection. The pictures shocked me. The speakers looked like they were blown up. Parts spilled out in many pieces, as if a music lover rocked out too hard for too long.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

UPS public relations manager Natalie Black told The Watchdog she couldn’t comment on Saxon’s particular case.

Yet when I described how the UPS driver flipped the boxes out of the truck, she said, “That kind of handling is unacceptable. … We train our drivers. They are taught to handle their packages with care. It sounds like this needs to be addressed and taken care of. It will be addressed. I don’t like hearing stories like this. I can understand his frustration.”

She promised to follow up with Saxon, which is more than what happened in the month he pleaded with UPS to address his problem.

Here’s what you need to know: Declared value is not the same as insurance. Packing is crucial. When shipping items of high value, use protective packing materials. Take photos of the packing to prove the packing is sufficient.

UPS and other major shippers usually cover up to $100 in damage, and that’s what Saxon was offered. He didn’t accept. Another possibility to consider is a third-party insurer.

None of this would have happened, Hoogvliet said, “if the speakers were handled correctly.” More important, the insurance that Saxon thought he bought wasn’t insurance at all. It never is.

Packing tips

UPS recommends the following:

Use a box strong enough to support the contents.

Securely seal the contents.

Use at least 2 inches of cushioning material around each side.

Reinforce package edges.

Securely seal package closures and seams with reinforced tape.

Include complete address information and telephone numbers on the label.

Don’t place a label on a seam.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

The Watchdog: Texas electricity companies profit from fees that some call ‘money for nothing’

Most Texas electricity companies charge extra fees on customer bills that have little to do with electricity. These companies slide through giant loopholes in state law that often shock customers when a monthly bill arrives.

For instance, an electric company serving North Texas customers pays Oncor Electric Delivery only $2.30 to disconnect a household from service and $2.70 to reconnect.

Yet one company stated that it charges $15 to disconnect and $50 to reconnect — or $100 if a customer wants an immediate reconnection called “expedited.” Another company charges $45 to disconnect and $15 to reconnect. Still another charges $5 when it sends out a disconnection notice and $65 to reconnect.

U.S. Coins and Paper Money

Those are hefty profits for what essentially, in the age of smart meters, amounts to pushing a few buttons by Oncor. No longer must a service tech travel to a residence to turn electricity service on or off.

“These fees are money for nothing,” says Carol Biedrzycki, head of Texas ROSE (Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy). She’s the leading state critic of such costs, complaining that companies “have done absolutely nothing to earn” these fees.

Here’s another: The Watchdog constantly receives complaints from Texans who can’t understand why they are urged to conserve electricity, yet when they do, they get penalized.

According to a 2013 survey by Texas ROSE shared with The Watchdog, 29 of 44 retailers charge $7 to $20 a month in penalties — called “minimum usage fees” — if a customer uses less than 1,000 (or in some cases 800) kilowatt-hours per month.

Some companies that have no minimum usage requirements, according to the survey, are Entrust Energy, Apollo Power & Light, First Choice, Green Mountain, New Leaf and Summer Energy.

Biedrzycki tells me that a few years ago only a few companies charged this penalty. When I asked one company why these charges are dumped on Texans who try to conserve, Will Huffman, director of customer experience for Ambit Energy, explained: “There’s a lot of risk that we have to undertake as retail providers to procure the power. If we buy too much or don’t buy enough, there’s always a risk associated. So you’re helping offset some of that risk.”

Public Utility Commission of Texas spokesman Terry Hadley calls the slew of extra fees “just another pebble in the pile.” He explains that “to whatever extent a provider has fees, they have to spell it out in contracts and their notifications” to customers.

These fees are allowed “in general,” he says. “It just emphasizes the importance of people understanding this. In the long term, do you want a provider that piles on these types of fees? That’s something a customer has to decide.”

Biedrzycki says, “These fees are a profit center. At a minimum they should be reporting how much they made on these fees. Airlines are deregulated, but we know how much they make on baggage fees.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More than a decade after Texas deregulated electricity service, there are more fees than ever.

Green Mountain, for example, bills itself as “the only power company in Texas dedicated to clean energy.” But there’s a cost for that. A customer is forced to pay $5 for copies of billing records, $15 if a customer makes more than five payments in a single month, and $5.95 if a bill is paid with the help of a live agent.

That last is one of the more irritating fees. According to the Texas ROSE survey, some companies charge about $5 if payment is made with a live agent. One company doing this is called Compassion Energy. No kidding.

Here’s another unusual fee structure: Texpo Energy offered a rate of 13.2 cents per kwh for an average monthly use of 500 kwh (in 2013), 10.6 cents for average monthly use of 1,000 kwh and 10.3 cents for average use of 2,000 kwh. But get this: If a customer doesn’t use the company’s AutoPay E-Plan — automatic payments from a bank account — the company tacks on an extra 5 cents per kwh. That means 10.3 cents per kwh jumps to more than 15 cents.

Note that The Watchdog isn’t pointing to various early termination fees enforced by most companies because a signed contract makes those fees clear. Neither am I noting the many fees charged for late payments, bounced checks and other collection fees, because when someone misses a bill, a penalty is expected.

Nor am I pointing out fees that are state-approved such as an Advanced Metering Charge and an Energy Efficiency Cost Recovery Factor. All companies are allowed to charge these fees. Some list them separately on bills; others don’t.

What’s important here is there’s no standardization for fees in either their presentation to customers or actual charges. It’s quite willy-nilly. Let the buyer beware.

The only way to figure out what the real costs are is to study each company’s Terms of Service and Electricity Facts Label, available on a company’s website and also on the state-run powertochoose.org website. It’s a shopper’s nightmare because customers often must wade through dense legal language to figure it out. In a few cases, fees are not even reported.

Customers must be thorough when asking questions before signing contracts. It’s easy to forget to ask the right question. Sometimes, customer service reps give wrong answers.

The only way to fix this problem is to beef up state law and rules so a standard set of fees applies across the board. That would make it easier for Texans to shop and understand what they’re actually paying for.

State law and PUC rules in the deregulated marketplace don’t go far enough, says Biedrzycki, who has been fighting this battle, mostly alone, for several years. There’s no reason for consumers to get zapped in so many jolting ways.

Follow Dave Lieber on Twitter at @Dave Lieber.

CONSUMER TIPS: Educate yourself

Know when your electricity contract expires.

Be prepared to sign up with a new company about a week before a contract’s expiration date.

Use the powertochoose.org website to shop. Then check a company’s own website to verify the accuracy of the terms offered.

Another website to check is texaselectricityratings.com.

Study both the Electricity Facts Label and the Terms of Service before signing a contract.

Ask questions of customer service reps on the phone before signing.

Make sure you understand the extra fees before committing.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

The Watchdog: How much do you know about protecting seniors?

Think about Grandma or Grandpa. Or your elderly dad or mom. Or maybe even you, getting older. Do you know the rights of older Texans? Do you know ways to protect them?

Let’s take The Watchdog’s Elder Care Knowledge Quiz.

The late Jack Cook of Southlake, TX.

The late Jack Cook of Southlake, TX. Dave’s favorite senior.

1. When a senior has a problem, a quick and reliable way to find professionals who can provide help is to:

a) dial the Texas 211 help line, which helps Texans connect with services they need.

b) check for pros on

Craigslist.

c) stand on a street corner with a sign.

2. State agencies that help seniors include all of these except:

a) Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

b) Texas Adult Protective Services.

c) Texas attorney general.

d) Texas Department of Scam Protection.

3. The Department of Aging and Disability Services is responsible for catching violations of state and federal laws in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home health care agencies.

True or false?

4. Which of these is a violation in a nursing home?

a) a resident not kept dressed, well groomed and clean at all times

b) treatments or care given in public, not private

c) treating a resident with disrespect

d) all of these

5. Which of these acts is considered abuse of an older person?

a) placing them in seclusion

b) humiliating and embarrassing them

c) using disparaging or derogatory terms

d) all of these

6. A door-to-door salesman comes to your door to sell a product. What is the chance that he’s telling the truth when he offers a great product for a low price that easily can’t be beat elsewhere?

a) He’s telling the truth.

b) He’s telling a lie as big as the hole in his conscience.

7. Seniors are favorite targets for scammers. Which of these are not vulnerabilities to be on the lookout for?

a) someone who wants to pave a homeowner’s driveway

b) garage door repair companies that don’t have a physical address in the area

c) financial advisers who guarantee double-digit rates of return

d) sellers of Girl Scout cookies

8. When an older adult has been scammed, the correct response is:

a) overcome initial embarrassment.

b) call the police.

c) tell relatives.

d) all of these.

9. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services does not take complaints about seniors who have been:

a) abused.

b) neglected.

c) financially exploited.

d) overcharged on electricity bills.

10. One easy way a senior can save money is to assume that most car repair diagnoses that are high-dollar recommendations deserve a second opinion elsewhere.

True or false?

11. Someone who calls and says he is from Microsoft and wants to fix a virus in your computer is:

a) correct, so give him your credit card.

b) a lying thief because Microsoft never makes calls such as this.

12. A grandchild calls on the phone and says he is in a foreign country and needs money wired immediately to him but he doesn’t want his parents to know. The correct action is to:

a) wire the money immediately because grandkids are the best.

b) call the parents and check on their child’s whereabouts.

c) make travel reservations to that foreign country.

13. A relative who gains access to an older person’s checkbook without his or her permission and spends money is:

a) a relative who will probably pay it back if someone finds out.

b) breaking the law, and the police could be called and charges filed.

14. It’s smart to be suspicious of investment opportunities offered by family members, friends and friends of friends no matter how good they sound.

True or false?

15. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott states on his website that investing in annuities “may be inappropriate for seniors because of the lengthy horizon before they begin to pay off. Sale of annuities to seniors may be unethical.”

True or false?

16. If a family member makes an official complaint about a nursing home and nursing home administrators retaliate against the resident or the family, the family should:

a) file a complaint with state regulators because that’s a violation of law.

b) accept things as they are and keep quiet.

17. When unexpected phone calls arrive from salespeople, the best defense is:

a) tape the call.

b) hang up.

c) talk to them as long as possible to learn who they are.

d) pretend you’re nuts.

18. The way to cancel a door-to-door sale is to:

a) make a phone call within 30 days of the sale to say you have changed your mind.

b) write “notice of cancellation” on a receipt and mail it back to the seller within three days (and keep a copy).

19. A senior facing a problem involving federal benefits such as Social Security or Medicare should get help by:

a) creating a petition on change.org.

b) making a funny YouTube video.

c) contacting his or her Congress member’s constituent services office.

20. When going to a seminar about a financial investment, it’s smart to make a decision going in that no matter what happens, an on-the-spot purchase won’t be made that day.

True or false?

Answers: 1-a; 2-d; 3-True; 4-d; 5-d; 6-b; 7-d; 8-d; 9-d; 10-True; 11-b; 12-b; 13-b; 14-True; 15-True; 16-a; 17-b; 18-b; 19-c; 20-True.

If you scored higher than 75 percent (15 of 20 correct) you know your stuff. Spread the word.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

Unlike airlines, cruise ships have little federal regulation

Anyone flying on a U.S. airline who experiences a problem can complain to the Transportation Department, which keeps statistics on airline safety and service issues and releases them to the public. The government also tries to help resolve billing disputes.

The same doesn’t go for cruise lines. No government agency has real oversight of consumer issues. A passenger with a problem is largely at the mercy of the cruise line.

 

Bruce Slocum found that out the hard way. The 78-year-old Grapevine resident booked a trip on Princess Cruises, but 17 days before the launch last month, Princess e-mailed him that he had to board between 2:30 and 3 p.m. That meant a four-hour wait in the terminal. Slocum has low blood sugar and must eat every three hours to maintain his insulin level and avoid health problems.

He asked someone in customer service for permission to board earlier because of his medical problem. The answer was no. Canceling so late meant he wouldn’t get a full refund. But he believed he had no choice and canceled.

He asked The Watchdog, “Is there a federal agency who regulates the cruise industry to whom I could direct a complaint?”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

2012 Book Edition Debuts on Good Morning Texas TV show

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The answer is yes and no. The Federal Maritime Commission would take his complaint, but any action by a cruise line is purely voluntary. The commission has no legal clout the way government agencies do in other industries.

In the past decade, the number of passengers on North American cruise lines has doubled, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group. But as cruise ship accidents continue to draw public attention, no one source offers information about accidents and safety records.

Anyone wanting to learn about a ship’s record would have to do an Internet search on the name, said Rene Henry, a travel industry expert.

“Nobody is keeping a database where you can easily find that,” he said. The Coast Guard conducts periodic safety checks.

The reason for the relative lack of oversight is that cruise ships commonly fly foreign flags. Yet the biggest cruise lines — Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. — are based in Miami. Both are publicly traded in the U.S. But by registering offshore, the cruise lines avoid U.S. taxes, regulations and labor laws.

There’s no movement in Congress to create a “passenger bill of rights” similar to one passed for airline passengers. Ross Klein, a Canadian sociologist who has studied the cruise industry, said last month at a U.S. Senate hearing focused on cruise line safety that legislation needs to address passenger and crew member rights.

Cruise tickets contain language that favors company owners. Victims of cruise accidents can file legal claims only in foreign jurisdictions, not in the U.S. That’s one reason the industry pays far fewer claims than others, making it very profitable.

Henry says travelers need an official agency to gather and report information on safety, health, security, environmental and customer service issues.

“Nearly 13 million Americans took a cruise last year, and not all of them had a Love Boat experience,” Henry said.

The public has a right, he said, to learn about ships with a history of engine and mechanical problems, about fires and explosions, about virus outbreaks, about crimes committed, about passengers falling overboard and even about billing disputes.

He’d like to see a Transportation Department website that collects and releases this information.

One problem: Last year, the cruise line association spent more than $3 million on lobbying Congress, Henry said. That excludes campaign contributions.

So all that’s left for American consumers is the maritime commission’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Dispute Resolution Services, an obscure government agency that tries to get cruise lines to voluntarily work out customer disputes, sometimes through mediation, sometimes through informal communication, Commission Deputy Director Jennifer Gartlan said.

The service is free to consumers, but the commission’s website makes no promises, saying it “cannot order a cruise line to reimburse passengers for cruise cancellations, or to pay claims for injuries or fatal accidents. However, to the extent they are able, commission staff will try to assist individual consumers who are having trouble obtaining financial settlements in these areas.”

Slocum’s story has a happy ending. He bought travel insurance through Princess. After he submitted a doctor’s note, he received the rest of his refund. Princess did not comment for this report.

Henry says that without government oversight to provide protections, cruise passengers should always consider travel insurance. He recommends buying it from an outside company, though, since cruise line insurance covers nothing before or after a cruise, such as mishaps on flights and travel to and from the ship’s terminal.

# # #

Learn more about cruises before you sign up for one by visiting these websites: CruiseJunkie.com and CruiseLawNews.com.

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

Watchdog: (Video) “Free” is a Four-Letter Word

Watchdog Dave Lieber researches for Sunday’s column whether TXU’s “free” nights and weekends program is really a good deal.

Video edited by: Marina Trahan Martinez.

READ THE COLUMN ABOUT THIS HERE.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

Watchdog Tip of the Day: Complain about a rental car company

What happens when something goes wrong with a rental car agency? The Dallas Morning News Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber shows consumers how to “flood the zone.” In our Watchdog Video Tip of the Day, we try to solve problems in under a minute.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

The Watchdog: With electric companies, level of trust is low

I guess it’s fair to say I’m obsessed with electricity companies in Texas, or more particularly the unfair methods they sometimes foist on unsuspecting customers.

In any relationship where you buy a product from a vendor, there has to be a level of trust. Trust that the gallon of milk for your family is healthy and safe. Trust that the book you buy doesn’t have poison on the pages.

After you hear what happened to Lisa Sawyer, it’s easy to feel let down by the means and methods some power companies use to squeeze extra pennies out of customers for a household’s kilowatt-hours charge. Pennies add up. A few cents higher for a family’s kWh rate, and the monthly bill shocks when it arrives.

It can happen to anyone. Sawyer, of Arlington, is a smart customer because she knew enough to negotiate a good rate with StarTex Power. She locked in Feb. 1 at a rate of 9.3 cents per kWh in a new long-term contract. Good deal. But then the March bill arrived, 30 percent higher than the month before. Made no sense. She doesn’t have electric heat. Then she saw the rate. 11.3 cents per kWh — two cents higher than she agreed to.

Here’s where the fun and games begin. Let Sawyer explain what happened when she reached a live agent:

“The StarTex rep told me StarTex recently upgraded its system, and my contract is not recognized. She offered me the option to overpay to avoid interruption of service or sign a new contract at a higher kWh rate. Neither of those options was acceptable to me.

“I spoke with a supervisor, Travis, who offered me the same options. He said he had no way of knowing how long it would take to resolve the system issue, and there was no way to issue a manual credit to make my bill reflect my contracted rate. He said approximately 900 customers are affected by this problem.

“I am not willing to overpay for an unknown number of months, and I’m not willing to sign a contract for a higher rate. When I proposed terminating, he said I would be charged a $250 termination penalty! That was the last straw. I filed a complaint with the PUC (Public Utility Commission of Texas).”

It’s illegal in Texas to charge a higher rate than the contracted price. Once Sawyer contacted the PUC, the game changed.

The PUC scorecard shows 36 billing complaints this year about StarTex. The PUC can fine companies for wrongdoing, but it’s difficult to prove, explains PUC spokesman Terry Hadley, who adds, “We can never be quite sure if it’s a renegade employee or a company instructing its staff to act in a particular way.”

StarTex Power spokeswoman Kelly Biemer confirms the details of Sawyer’s story. About 900 customers are affected. The problem was caused by a “computer system error.” Customer service reps who spoke to Sawyer have received “additional training” so they won’t do that anymore. (Don’t you love that?)

Letters are going out to customers informing them of the problem. And the company informed the PUC that everyone affected will get a $25 gift card to make up for the inconvenience. ($22,500 for 900 customers. A pittance.) Each customer also gets an adjustment to their bill so they don’t overpay, StarTex says.

Sawyer, though, gets a little better treatment. That’s what happens to PUC complainers, I guess. She’s supposed to get a $50 gift card and her bill was manually corrected.

StarTex is owned by Constellation, which, in turn, is owned by Chicago-based Exelon Co., one of the largest nuclear plant operators in the U.S. Both companies have exhibited some financial strain in recent weeks.

startex 1

Last month, the Maryland comptroller’s office filed a $2.6 million tax lien against Constellation for unpaid state corporate taxes, penalties and interest dating back to 2006, the Baltimore Business Journal reported. Parent company Exelon told Illinois officials it may not be able to afford to keep three of its nuclear power plants open in that state because of economic conditions.

The electricity business is tough. Operators have to guess how much juice to buy and how much to pay. It’s a gamble. But that’s no excuse to burn customers.

“We are glad there are vigilant customers,” PUC spokesman Hadley says, “but certainly we advise everyone to look at their bill every month and make sure they are charged the appropriate kWh rate.”

Hear that? The state PUC warns that you should check your rate every month. It goes back to that level of trust with electric companies. It’s not there.

In the Know

Do you know what kWh rate you’re paying? Check your electric bill.

Do you know when your contract expires? Call your company and ask.

Think twice about setting up auto-debit payments from your bank account for monthly electric bills. You can’t examine charges before you pay.

Read The Watchdog’s electricity guide.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

The Watchdog: Secret scores supposedly reveal who consumers are

You probably know the score of the latest game for your favorite baseball team. You may know your credit score. But you probably don’t know about other secret scores that companies keep on you.

They are your consumer scores, sometimes called e-scores or predictive scores. Hundreds of them exist, but they’re hidden from view. Trade secrets. Except they’re about your life. And they could be wrong.

A report this week called “The Scoring of America” by the World Privacy Forum gives samples of these e-scores:

The Job Security Score is supposed to predict future income and ability to pay.

Churn scores predict when a customer will jump from one company to a competitor.

The Affordable Care Act health risk score is “a proxy score for how sick a person is,” the report states.

The Medication Adherence Score predicts if a person likely takes medication recommended by doctors. And on and on. Divorced? Pregnant? A hunter? A gardener? An antique collector? There’s scores for those, too.

Some of this sounds benign. But privacy experts say the problem is that these scores along with, say, your ZIP code and whether you’re using a Mac or a PC, a phone or a laptop, even what kind of Internet browser you use, are all in play now when you visit websites.

How? They show companies who you are, or something close enough.

Ultimately, you may pay a higher price for a service or a product based on your score, or where you live (or where your computer thinks you live). That’s called price discrimination, and it’s happening more and more. These scores could affect housing and employment opportunities and prices for products and services.

Most people don’t realize this is happening, the Federal Trade Commission says.

When you visit a website or read an item on a blog, that site usually places a “cookie” on your device — a random 20-digit number that records what you do on the Internet.

When you visit a Web page that has space for an ad, a real-time auction occurs in a fraction of a second between various computerized bidders who want to match up with certain high scores. The winner is the ad you see.

Other factors, such as purchasing habits and activities in the real world, also affect scores. Income. Car. Education. Political affiliation. Average offline purchase cost. Hundreds of details.

Scores affect us in ways we can’t know. At some company call centers, a score can determine how long someone waits on hold or whether a customer gets to speak to a high-ranking supervisor.

I learned about these scores at a privacy seminar presented by the FTC. Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told everyone that the unregulated market is “a non-transparent system where thousands of bits of our lives are being collected about us, shared and used to decide not who should pay less, but who can pay more.”

He added that nobody wants to pay more “and it’s fine for a company to offer its better customers discount cards. But nobody wants to be put in a compartmentalized box where they are profiled in a secret way and where a set of scores is used to determine who will pay more.”

The best known example of price discrimination is a story about a stapler. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal tested online pricing for a stapler at staples.com. The results showed that the prices varied based on how close a customer lived to a competing office supply store. If rival stores were within 20 miles, Staples discounted its price. Staples did not respond to a request for information from The Watchdog.

stapler

That same year witnessed perhaps the most extraordinary example of predictive scoring. After President Obama won re-election by a larger-than-expected margin, attention focused on his election team’s predictive scoring system. Democrats claimed they could ID likely voters almost block by block. By comparison, on Election Day the Republicans’ turnout software crashed during crucial voting hours.

Targeting customers is nothing new in marketing. If you’re reading this on dallasnews.com, we’re reading you too.

In the case of the scores, though, the science behind computer algorithms has exploded. Science, as is usually the case, is far ahead of rule-making.

Yet there’s a clear path to follow: Several decades ago, personal credit scores were secretive and unavailable. Yet they played a similar role in determining financial offers and opportunities. But in the past decade, things changed. Now every adult American has a right to learn about her or his personal credit score. One can challenge inaccuracies and learn if a poor credit score hurt chances for a loan.

Scoring can’t be stopped, but there can be fairness and disclosure similar to credit score rules. Nobody expects Congress to act on this. The hope among privacy advocates is that rule changes will come from the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the FTC.

We should be able to see our scores. Correct them when they’re wrong. Opt out of them being used, if we wish. There should be no secret scores that affect our pocketbooks.

Final note: The Federal Trade Commission recommended in 2014 that this industry become regulated. Congress, however, is not expected to act on this.

IN THE KNOW: Web privacy

To protect privacy, periodically delete cookies from your computer or device. Use a search engine to find out how to delete cookies for your particular device and browser.

Anti-virus software programs provide various settings for collecting and rejecting cookies.

Use “private browser” or “privacy mode” on the Web to hide your identity when researching health and other private matters. This feature doesn’t save cookies, temp files and page history. But an Internet provider still knows what pages are accessed.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

The Watchdog: Electric bill may come as jolt

In the confusing and sometimes deceptive Texas residential electricity market, certain monthly charges called delivery fees are often more frustrating than a brownout.

Some electric companies list them in marketing materials and bills. Others don’t.

Delivery fees can add as much as 30 percent to a bill. But some electricity sales people only sell customers on the kilowatt-hour rate and leave out the delivery fee when closing the deal.

There’s only one place to learn the true kilowatt-hour charge, and The Watchdog will tell you where that is.

power consumption

Delivery fees cover the cost of moving electricity through power lines, a different cost than how much electricity is used each month. In North Texas, it’s the Oncor charge because Oncor Electric Delivery delivers the juice on behalf of dozens of retail companies that compete for business.

Delivery fees are a standard charge for everyone. Electric companies pass them through to customers.

Confusion abounds because of how the fees are presented. Companies can do it one of two ways. Companies can bundle the kwh rates and delivery fees into one lump sum, or they can split them out as line items.

How do you shop companies when some list their prices with fees and others don’t? Sticker shock hits later when monthly bills come in at a higher rate than what consumers were led to believe.

Another reason for confusion: The same fee has different names. Aside from Oncor charge, other names used are Transmission and Distribution Utilities recurring fees, TDU fees and TDU delivery charges.

Customer Justin Brower of Dallas said that when fees and taxes were added, his bill was 60 percent higher than he expected.

“It is extremely misleading to not show the customer which plans have the charges bundled vs. the ones which are unbundled,” he said.

One reason these monthly fees have moved front and center is because some of the larger retailers decided to break them out as a separate line item. It makes sense since the fees are outside the control of the electric companies that send the bills.

TXU Energy tells customers on its bills: “TDU delivery charges are regulated fees from your TDU for the delivery of electricity. Previously they were included in your energy rate, but are now itemized separately.”

The fees are set by state regulators. They’ve more than doubled since deregulation began in Texas a dozen years ago. Part of that increase covers smart meter conversions.

TXU provides an excellent breakout of the monthly fees at txu.com/tducharges. They include a 78-cent customer charge, a $2.19 smart meter charge and a $2.28 meter charge for a fixed monthly charge of $5.25. Seven other charges are based on the amount of kilowatt-hours used. All this adds a little more than 3 cents per kwh to a contract’s listed rate.

Champion Energy Services sends emails to current customers accurately advertising a renewal rate for its annual plan at 7.6 cents per kwh. Beneath in smaller print, it states, “Energy price does not include delivery fees. Average price per kwh is 11 cents.” That shows both the base cost and the transmission-added cost clearly.

“The problem,” says R.A. Dyer of Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, “is that a lot of retail electric providers are able to compete using confusion rather than price.”

A door-to-door electricity salesman will probably talk about a low kwh rate and not mention the delivery fees along with other taxes that increase a bill. That keeps an advertised kwh rate low, but it’s an incomplete statement of cost.

I promised to show the one place to learn the true price of an electricity contract. But it comes with a hedge.

By law, an electric company must list its full pricing with fees on the Electricity Facts Label for each offered plan. An EFL can be found on a company’s website and also on the state-run PowerToChoose.org.

Here’s my hedge, or really two of them. First, EFLs are confusing. An average kwh rate is shown and that includes the fees. But different companies present their numbers different ways. Some do it with text, others with numbers and text. There’s not enough standardization.

Randy Evans of Dallas told me he was certain he could shop smart by plugging company numbers from EFLs into a spreadsheet.

“Well, I was wrong,” he says. “Trying to make sure you were gleaning the correct information from these ‘Facts Labels’ was a chore indeed. Not all the numbers are necessarily there.”

That’s my second hedge. Some companies aren’t including the required information. A few ignore the requirement to put numbers in the EFL and instead give a website in the EFL offering further information.

Bottom line: Complete costs must be shown on an EFL. Check an EFL closely before agreeing to an electricity contract. Learn the “all in” rate with everything added up — kwh rate plus delivery charge.

Sounds like it should be easy to find out. But too often it’s not.

Follow Dave Lieber on Twitter at @Dave Lieber.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

dmnsmalltwitter1small

wdn1smallyoutube2small

fb1smallgplussmall

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org