Watchdog Nation celebrates 3 new consumer laws


You did it!

Watchdog Nation celebrates the passage of three new laws aimed at helping Texans protect their pocketbooks and their privacy.

As readers of the Dave Lieber Dallas Morning News Watchdog column know, The Watchdog asked for your help to push state lawmakers into solving five of the most annoying consumer problems in Texas.

We promoted five bills in the 2015 Texas Legislature.

Many thought little would come of these proposals, which we called the “Good Deal” platform.

We used as our bully pulpit The Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News — and, most important, its thousands of readers, some of whom participated in the campaign to help lawmakers who sponsored the bills. These everyday constituents sent letters and emails stating their support.

It worked.

So how did we do in the 2015 Legislature?

Three of our five bills passed. Three for five! The Watchdog rarely uses exclamation points, but that’s a .600 batting average, good enough to get into a hall of fame.

That’s why Watchdog Nation launched The Watchdog Hall of Fame. Six state lawmakers who worked hard on behalf of these five causes are the inaugural 2015 inductees.

We’re proud to tell you their names: Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano; Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin; Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown; Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker; Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake; and Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.


Inaugural inductees of The Watchdog Hall of Fame – 2015




Let’s look at what happened in each of the five areas and give lawmakers Good Deal grades.

Insurance policy questions | Grade: A+

A key to my Watchdog Nation consumer rights movement is the idea that we should always ask a bunch of questions before making financial decisions.

But you couldn’t do that in Texas with your homeowners or auto insurance policies without risking a premium increase. Some companies took advantage of a loophole in the law to penalize customers who made inquiries. No more.

Thanks to Watson, it will be illegal in Texas for auto and homeowners insurance companies to penalize customers who only ask questions about their policies, but never seek actual claims.

The insurance industry, in its all-knowing wisdom, decided that simply asking about your policy shows a propensity for accidents. They figure you’ll eventually cost them money.

One man I found considered filing an auto claim but in the end didn’t file and never received any insurance money. His premiums went up for five years anyway.

Watson tried two years ago to get this law passed but didn’t succeed. This time he succeeded.

Support from Watchdog Nation “certainly helped,” Watson spokeswoman Kate Alexander says.

Watson says, “Giving customers the freedom to ask questions about their insurance policies without repercussion is just common sense.”

Learn more: Senate Bills 188 and 189

Kirk Watson Hall of Fame plaque

Roofers’ licensing | Grade: D+

The Watchdog sought a licensing system for roofers to weed out the bad guys.

When two lawmakers — Capriglione and Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas — introduced bills that would create a voluntary certification (Capriglione) or registration program (Sheets) that was weaker than licensing. But still, it was an added step of consumer protection.

Unfortunately, neither bill advanced out of House committees to make it to the full House for a vote.

“The countless emails from North Texas readers helped to support the cause of the bill,” Capriglione says. “But it is also important to contact the members of the committee and show them the support for the bill, and more importantly, be at the committee hearing to testify for the bill.”

Live and learn. The Watchdog is paying close attention.

The city of Arlington has taken an extra step to protect its residents from crooked roofers. Last month, the city created a roofers’ registration process that screens roofers who want to work in the city.

Giovanni Capriglione Hall of Fame plaque

Electricity shopping reform | Grade: D-

Priority one for The Watchdog was my idealistic “Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2015.” This proposal had no chance of passage in 2015.

The only reason the grade is not an F is because Turner, who is retiring, did what he always does: fight for electricity customers in Texas.

He authored a bill that would have eliminated the hated penalty fees for customers who don’t use a required minimum amount of power each month. These fees are especially unfair to the elderly and the poor who try to conserve, then get socked with monthly penalties.

These penalties didn’t exist until recently when electricity companies figured out a new way to exploit customers.

Turner’s bill failed. Still, he’ll be missed. No one else in the legislature seems to care about helping consumers navigate the confusing retail electricity market. Rates are advertised with and without added fees. Door-to-door electricity salesmen will say almost anything to make a sale. Annoying fees — unregulated — are tacked on to monthly bills by electricity companies.

Behind the scenes, electricity companies and their lobbying groups convinced lawmakers that there’s nothing major wrong with the system. Public Utility Commission officials also take the attitude that no major changes are needed.

Many Texans disagree.

At least my campaign generated attention. Pros and cons were discussed by me and others on radio, on TV and in two energy newsletters read by industry members across the state and nation.

I’m disappointed that the power industry doesn’t want to clean up its shady marketing practices. Keep it up, and their credibility will match roofers.

The Watchdog is not giving up.

Sylvester Turner Hall of Fame plaque

Debit/credit card surcharges | Grade: A+

Yes, it’s illegal for retailers and others to add a surcharge penalty to customers who pay with a debit or credit card. Governments are excluded and allowed to charge extra.

When somebody complains, merchants get a warning letter from the state. That’s it.

No longer.

Thanks to hard work by Schwertner, anyone who violates the law will get more than a warning letter. They can expect a $500 fine.


Learn more: Senate Bill 641

Charles Schwertner Hall of Fame plaque

Fingerprinting for driver’s licenses | Grade: A+

The curtain officially comes down on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s dream of capturing a full set of fingerprints from every Texan with a driver’s license or state ID card in the next decade. The plan was to include us in a state and ultimately, a national database.

The Watchdog first reported the fingerprinting scheme last year. In February, Taylor and Laubenberg met with DPS Director Steven McCraw and DPS’ top lawyer to talk about ending the program.

Laubenberg met with House Speaker Joe Straus. Taylor met with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff. Under fire, McCraw stopped the program.

To make it stick, though, a new law was needed.

Laubenberg, Taylor, Schwertner and rookie Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, tried various maneuvers to place into law that only a thumbprint is required. They also wanted DPS to destroy the hundreds of thousands of fingerprints collected during the one year the unauthorized collection took place.

Taylor, a rookie senator, added a Senate amendment to a bill about commercial driver’s licenses. The amendment enacted the thumbprint rule and also required that fingerprints collected from innocent drivers be destroyed by the end of the year.

When that bill got to the House, its author, Capriglione, agreed to let the added portion of the bill stand. It passed.

Learn more: House Bill 1888

Jodie Laubenberg Hall of Fame plaque

Van Taylor Hall of Fame plaque

I’ll be watching for your ideas about consumer matters you want to see fixed in the 2017 session. We’ll battle together. Onward and upward.

Thanks to Michael Hogue of for designing our Hall of Fame plaques.

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How a petition shows an electric company who’s the boss

The right to petition for a “redress of grievances” is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Although it applies to the right of Americans to petition the government, The Watchdog showed a neighborhood how to use the concept to prompt a company to fix a problem lasting more than 40 years.

Since the mid-1960s, when homes on Wosley, Winifred and Woodway drives in Fort Worth’s Wedgwood East neighborhood were built, residents have complained about regular power outages.

“It just went on for all these years,” Lanelle Phipps told me. “It was reported and reported, and they would say they fixed it, but it didn’t take more than 10 drops of rain for the power to go off.”

Last year, Phipps and a neighbor, Karen Erickson, decided they had had enough. The last straw for them was the February 2010 snowstorm.

“We sat here for 53 hours in the dark freezing when all of our neighbors around us had power,” Erickson said.

She called Oncor Electric Delivery, which services power lines. “You can’t get anybody. You can’t get a human voice,” she said.

Dave Lieber column looking at Oncor Electric

One time she did. “He laughed it off and said, ‘Oh, we deal with that all the time.’ He was no help. He just told me to keep calling, keep calling.”

When Erickson described the problem to me, I wrote back with a plan:

“Easiest thing to do is organize your neighbors. Get everyone to sign a petition. Send the info to me, and I will pass it on to Oncor. … With the fuss you will kick up, Oncor will realize that they need to come out and actually fix the problem. It most likely will work.”

Phipps wrote the petition and cover letter, which stated, “Surely in all these years with all the reported outages, the problem has been (or could be) identified. …This petition is a formal request for the electric service companies to fix the problem — whatever it is. It has gone on far too long for any neighborhood to simply sit back and wait for the next inconvenient event.”

Erickson walked the petition door to door. She worked hard to catch everyone but eventually she did: 29 homeowners. Everyone signed the petition. It took seven months.

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In November, I passed the petition on to Oncor. Good things happened after that. Oncor staffers held a meeting and reviewed the neighborhood’s power history back to the beginning. When an Oncor employee contacted Phipps, she told Phipps, “I guess your petition got in the hands of the right people.”

An Oncor representative told me that the neighborhood had eight outages in the past year, five caused by weather and three for other reasons.

In December, Oncor began trimming trees. Oncor said that’s the easiest and best way to minimize weather-related outages. But the neighbors knew that it was more than that.

Once the trees were trimmed, there were still outages, Phipps said. She insisted that other measures be tried. More workers showed up.

As Erickson wrote to me, “They admitted that a lot of our equipment is out of date, and they will be updating with new equipment. They went back to Day One, and based on the number of complaints and outages, have decided that the equipment has always been defective.”

Oncor trucks remained in the neighborhood for several weeks. Among the work they did: Damaged lightning arresters were replaced; wiring was replaced; new cross arms and holding arms were installed.

Since then, there hasn’t been a problem.

Oncor says that if you have a problem, visit and send a message from that site. Or call the Ask Oncor Hotline at 888-875-6279.

But I like the petition idea. If the story of excessive power outages in this neighborhood rings true to what’s happening in your neighborhood, why not try it same way? Get everyone in the neighborhood to sign a petition.

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Meet the dog that hates smart meter installers

Watchdog Nation introduces you to another watchdog. His name is Riley. He’s 14 months old. A Vizsla. A real dog.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong shows you how to save money

Meet Riley. He doesn't care for smart meters.

From his point of view, it’s easy to see why he might have nipped at the gloved hand that reached over the fence in his back yard in Crowley, Texas.

The hand belonged to a smart-meter installer from Oncor Electric Delivery.

The installer’s other hand reached for his can of HALT! — a dog repellent spray — and fired away.

Riley ran back into his house. His eyes had swollen, and he wiped his head frantically on the carpet. His owners, Carter and Mandy Forbes, didn’t know what had happened. They rushed him to the vet, where the doctor explained that someone had apparently sprayed the dog with repellent. Riley was treated and released. The bill was $90.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong shows you how to save money

Back home after that, Mandy Forbes saw an Oncor installer in the neighborhood. She says she watched him take off his hard hat and butt a neighborhood Chihuahua that was barking at him in the head.

“Did you spray my dog?” she says she asked him.

“I haven’t done it in six months,” he replied.

“Do you have the right to do that?”

“Yes,” he answered. “If we feel threatened.”

She told him what Riley went through. He apologized but said it must have been the other installer working the neighborhood.

The Forbeses contacted Oncor. Days later, the company, which delivers electricity to much of North Texas, agreed to pay the medical bill.

Oncor doesn’t like to pay claims. But it did so in this case because the installer didn’t follow company policy.

“It was really in the spirit of customer service that we decided to pay this claim,” spokeswoman Megan Wright said. “There wasn’t anything legally that would make us pay this claim. But the fact that the meter installer did not knock before he installed the meter, which is not required by law, we felt that we wanted to pay this claim.”

The front-door knock, she said, is “something we like to do as a courtesy.”

When I pressed for more details, she said, “His body was not bit, but he said the dog’s teeth did make contact with his really thick gloves.”

Riley is fine. The installer, however, was reprimanded. “We tell our employees they have to put their safety first,” Wright said. “He had to do what he could to protect himself.”

Previously, I’ve reported how smart-meter installers have the right to climb backyard fences to change out meters and how, during the installation, the power to your home or business will go off for several minutes. I’ve recommended that you install surge protectors on valuable electronics and even consider purchasing a whole-house surge protector, usually best installed by an electrician. Oncor says it doesn’t pay claims on electronics that are ruined by power surges.

As far as dog bites, Oncor says installers have been bitten by dogs 12 times this year and were bitten 22 times last year.

Oncor provided this photo to show what its smart meter installers must endure.

Oncor provided this photo to show what its smart meter installers must endure.

Oncor provided me with photos of installers and the nasty bites they received. The photos are difficult to look at.

Oncor says it trains installers how to handle dogs without spraying them.

“We talk to them about how to spot the danger signs of aggression,” Wright said. “How to walk away. Move slowly and carefully. You don’t look in a dog’s eyes. You do not smile, because you don’t want to show your teeth. The dog will think that’s an aggressive move.

“Never run. You just stay calm and quiet. We also talk to installers about being aware of their surroundings, looking to see if there are any dog toys, dog runs, well-worn paths.

“Our meter readers also carry with them a stick with a little tennis ball on the end of it. The dog will oftentimes attack the tennis ball.

“No one wants to hurt an animal.”

Oncor has almost 2 million smart meters left to install. That’s a lot of back yards to enter — and a lot of watchdogs that have no idea what’s coming.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong shows you how to save money

Oncor provided this photo of a worker's pants to show the perils of going into the backyards of others.

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Dog bite stats

  • 2005 – 43 dog bites
  • 2006 – 31 dog bites
  • 2007 – 32 dog bites
  • 2008 – 27 dog bites
  • 2009 – 22 dog bites
  • As of 8/1/2010 – 12 dog bites

Source: ONCOR

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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

When your electric company doesn’t tell you what’s happening

After he saw my report on Oncor Electric Delivery’s poor outage information system a week ago, reader Doug Edwards of Dallas summarized my findings better in 18 words than I did in a thousand.

“It looks like you got the brush off from Oncor everybody else is. They always say `Tomorrow, Tomorrow …’ ” was the message he sent via my Twitter feed.

He’s right.

I had asked Oncor why the company couldn’t do better at providing power outage information to the public, especially during a major storm.

This is a Dave Lieber report for

But what happened? I got steered into an explanation about how everything will be better in two or three years because we’ll have smart meters.

So last week, I tried again. I pressed Oncor harder when I previewed its new smart meter exhibit, soon to be visiting a county fair near you.

Because North Texas gets its share of severe weather, it’s hard to understand why Oncor won’t do a better job of informing the public when neighborhoods are dark, when crews are working to restore power and when it’s finally restored.

Oncor doesn’t offer that service. That also means that the news media can’t report the latest information to a wider public.

Yet last week I found two electricity transmission companies similar to Oncor that do tell their customers what is happening during bad weather in modern, quick and efficient ways.

AEP Texas, which serves a giant swath of West Texas, presents on its Web site a real-time listing and accompanying color map — broken down by ZIP code — that shows how many customers have lost power.

The information comes from telephone complaints by customers, which are then transferred to the Web site, spokesman Larry Jones said. The site is updated every few minutes. Parent company American Electric Power offers real-time outage alerts in the 11 states it serves.

In Florida, Kissimmee Utility Authority created an outage alert system five years ago that sends text alerts or e-mails to anyone who signs up, giving the number of affected customers by ZIP code. Updates give customers an idea of how quickly the problem is being fixed.

Spokesman Chris Gent says the authority’s system preceded Twitter, which was developed a year later. Now the authority offers both a Twitter feed and its original system to customers.

The service is inexpensive, he said, because it was designed in-house and is run by staff.

The authority is experimenting with GPS devices on work trucks so that information can eventually be used, too.

Several readers called and questioned my plea for a strong Internet alert system for Oncor customers. They said they wouldn’t have electricity to access a Web site.

Remember that hand-held phones and laptops are often battery-powered. Friends and relatives can relay information to you from elsewhere. The news media uses the information. And all of this is important for families that have evacuated and want to learn when they can return.

Does Oncor have any plans to offer an outage alert system?

At the smart-meter exhibit in Lancaster, spokeswoman Jeamy Molina answered, “We’re just not at a place where that can be done right now. It goes back to the grid with the whole outage system. We know when there are widespread outages. We know where that is. It goes back to our restoration process and how it works.

“We understand that there are places that Oncor can improve on its customer service and dealing with these kinds of things. And of course, these will be things that we’ll take into account when we start seeing what we could have done better before the next storm. So that will be something that will come up. But right now, Oncor is not at that place.”

What about the near future?

“It’s stuff that will be talked about, of course,” she continued. “We’ll take this back to our team. We have to review steps about what could be done.”

As my Twitter pal sang in his tweet: “Tomorrow, Tomorrow …”

No system’s perfect

OK, I have a smart-meter story for you. Those are the 21st-century meters that connect directly to the electric company. You can monitor your power usage and set your smart appliances to run at off-peak times. Most Texas electric customers will have one in a few years.

Oncor took a lot of, uh, heat from customers in recent weeks in Killeen and Temple. Soon after their smart meters were installed, their bills jumped. But Oncor says that the increase was due to the cold weather and that it tested about 500 meters and all were accurate.

Even though smart meters are designed to eliminate humans and our errors, there is still that possibility. When an old meter is removed, the final reading is recorded by — gasp — a human.

And wouldn’t you know it? Sometimes people make mistakes. About a dozen so far when it comes to smart-meter conversions, Oncor says.

There’s this one fellow who had a smart meter installed nine months ago at his home in the Austin area (not served by Oncor).

When he received the first bill afterward, he recalls, “It looked like they overcharged me 1,000 kilowatts.”

He called Austin Energy to complain. “The meter reader, in closing out, put the decimal point in the wrong place,” he says. “I was charged an extra 1,000 kwh. So there’s that potential element for human error.”

And who is this fellow who was done wrong?

His name is Terry Hadley.

His job?

He’s the spokesman for the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

If it can happen to him …

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Are your Texas electricity bills too high? Here’s a solution…

The battle cry for residents in a seniors community in Fort Worth, Texas goes like this:

“I’m gettin’ beat ’cause I want to use some heat!”

Residents tried to figure out why their electric bills have doubled in the past few months.

Last week, they called a meeting and invited me. They showed me their bills, almost all of them from TXU Energy. They had a lot of theories about what went wrong — meters not read properly, for example.

After I bit, as I first reported in the Jan. 31, 2010 Dave Lieber column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I gave them my initial expert opinion.

It was bitterly cold in late December. Of course bills go up.

But then I dug deeper into their cases, looking at their bills and asking each resident two crucial questions:

What kilowatt-per-hour rate do you pay?

When does your contract expire?

Almost nobody knew the answers. Their problem, it seems, is much worse than high winter bills. Most likely, these residents are paying more than necessary because they haven’t shopped around for electricity. Unfortunately, many Texans still don’t know how to do that.

We worked on their cases, and in the end, I hope I solved their problem. Best of all, my solution may work for you, too. But before we get to that, let’s listen to a few of the residents:

Martha Beaman: “My bill was $28 in November. Then, in December, it was $256. And for January, it was $233. I am never at home. I work. This is stressful because my wages haven’t gone up as the bill goes up. I have to calculate every penny I earn because my job has been cut back on hours this month. I’m struggling.”

Shirley Stockton: “I knew the cold weather was coming and cranked my heater down to 65. I turned my water heater off through the cold snap, and the bill still went from $36 to $96. I only turn my water heater on every few days when I need it.” (When she called to tell a TXU rep that, she says the rep told her that hot water “is a privilege.”)

Debbie Wilson: Her bill jumped from $78 to $176 to $272: “After I got the high bill for December, I cut my thermostat to 67. I use oxygen at night, so I have to have enough electricity to pay for that. I’d rather go cold than not have my air at night.”

Anita Mayfield: Her bill went from $64 to $149. “I’m getting tired of cooking on a microwave. I wear sweats all the time. I have the thermostat turned down to 60 degrees. I wash in cold water. When you live on a fixed income, you can’t afford this. You don’t know where you are going to pay these extras from.”

Charlie Berry: His bill went from $40 to $176 to $227. “At this rate, by the time I get the next bill, I’m going to have to apply for assistance from the U.S. government just to pay my electric bill.”

Steve Kerr: “During the cold snap I was out of town for three weeks with the heating system turned off.” His bill went from $90 to $146 to $236. He is skeptical about whether the meter was read. “Whether or not it was read — that’s the $64,000 question,” he says.

Oncor spokeswoman Carol Peters said later that the bills are higher because this has been the second-coldest winter in the past two decades. “There’s a 30 percent increase in the heating requirements over last year,” she said. Oncor delivers the electricity through the lines and hires the meter readers. TXU is the residents’ retail provider by their choice.

TXU spokeswoman Sophia Stoller looked at 13 cases of Providence Village residents provided by The Watchdog. All but one seemed accurate, she said. In the questionable case, the initial bill looked too low.

TXU offers several ways for customers to get help with their bills, including a 10 percent discount as part of the Low Income Discount Plan. But you have to ask. TXU Energy Aid helps customers who say they have a hardship, such as loss of job or illness.

When I looked at the residents’ bills, I found that many are paying as much as 13, 14 or 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

However, last week, the state-run Web site showed the lowest prices I’ve seen — 8.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

So the quickest way to lower your electric bill is not to turn down a thermostat or turn off a water heater but to learn when your contract expires and shop for a better deal. If there’s a cancellation fee, it will be more than covered in a few months by cutting a 15-cent rate almost in half.

As proof, one Providence Village resident said she paid $250 to cancel her contract before it expired so she could switch to Green Mountain Energy. Her neighbors sighed when Helen Nash reported that her recent bill was only $93.

If you’re not sure about the best way to shop around, I’ve got you covered. I’ve distributed tens of thousands of free copies of my guide showing how to get the best buy in Texas electricity. You can find it by clicking here on “Dave Lieber Guide to Saving on Your Electricity Bill.”

You can also e-mail me at or request a copy at Dave Lieber, Star-Telegram, P.O. Box 1870, Fort Worth, TX 76101.

What to do If you need help on your electric bill, call 211.

Customers who receive food stamps or Medicaid may qualify for the Lite Up Texas discount or other assistance.

Ask your electric company whether it offers assistance. Also ask to pay a big bill over several months, allowed under law.

On Feb. 3, 2010, Tarrant County Human Services will take applications from those who are retired or on disability and receive no other income. Call 817-531-5620 on Wednesday and ask for an appointment. Only 500 appointments will be scheduled.

Source: Tarrant County Human Services

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber