Five Bills Designed to Make Texas Consumer-Friendly

Make shopping for electricity fairer for Texans. Force roofers to get a state license. Stop charging extra for people who pay with debit and credit cards. Verify that fingerprinting all Texans for driver’s licenses is legal. Protect auto insurance customers who ask questions about their policies.

These are the five dream bills offered up by Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber in his recent two-part series. Read Part One and Part Two.

By far, his Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2015 is his top-priority. “I get more complaints from Texans about their electricity contracts than any other subject,” Lieber says. “I have placed the top ones into my dream bill. I’m seeking one or more lawmakers willing to take on the big powerful interests and clean up all the loopholes. So far, no legislator has taken the big step. But I’m hoping for it.”

Lieber wants to ban minimum usage fees, regulate unregulated fees and make comparison shopping easier by forcing all companies to advertise the full price including the delivery charge.

electricity screen shot

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber discusses his legislative proposal on NBC5. Watch here:

Read about the four minor bills here.

Read about the major electricity bill here.

Follow The Watchdog at www.dallasnews.com/watchdog and see the progress of this year’s campaign.

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How to fight your electric bill

How to fight your electric bill

People complain about high electricity bills. Often they’re ignored. Here’s how a prosecutor shows you how to take care of bad customer service reps who don’t care.

A Texas “power” story

Power plants across Texas fail. People have to cope with rolling blackouts. That makes Watchdog Nation long for the good old days when people complained about smart meters and their bills going up. Good old days? That would be before the great ice storms of 2011 in North Texas.

Although The Watchdog can’t solve the rolling blackouts, we will continue to shine a light on the Texas electricity system.

Customer service is questionable

Today’s victims, er, electricity customers: John and Mary Brasher of Wichita Falls. John Brasher is a 25-year veteran prosecutor in the Wichita County district attorney’s office who handles appeals. After his smart meter was installed, his next bill came in four times higher than the previous month’s. So the couple launched an appeal with TXU Energy.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Mary Brasher called customer service. She got no help. “I knew I was talking to someone overseas. His phrases didn’t sound right. I felt like he was reading me a canned answer. He kept repeating the same phrases over and over,” she said.

Next, the couple wrote TXU. They even diagnosed their own problem, telling TXU that their old meter reading was most likely inaccurate.

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Difficulty communicating

Here are excerpts from their ensuing correspondence.

TXU: “Dear Mr. Brasher … the meter was accurately read.”

Brasher: “Did you even read my last email? … Where is the old meter? Can it be tested?”

TXU: “All bill dates and due amounts are continuing as normal.”

Brasher: “You are absolutely wrong. … That is crazy, and I do not appreciate your canned answer one bit. I am notifying the Texas Public Utility Commission. Additionally, I would appreciate a chance to review and read the old meter myself. I am sure you have it stored some place. I expect to receive a real answer from you, not a canned answer.”

You can be an electricity company prosecutor, too

That didn’t happen, so John Brasher filed a complaint with the PUC: “TXU will provide us no information about whether the ‘old’ meter can be located and read. … We would like a reasonable explanation, rather than the arrogant and condescending responses we have been given by TXU.”

The prosecutor continues, “If, in fact, the old meter can no longer be read merely because it has been removed, then that is a loophole that needs to be closed. Otherwise, TXU can claim any electrical usage it wants to without the consumer having any recourse. We can only assume that this is in fact what TXU is doing, since it will not provide any answers to us.”

His PUC complaint got everyone’s attention, and finally the facts came out.

Who is to blame?

Oncor Electric Delivery says its reader misread the Brashers’ meter two weeks before the old meter was swapped for the smart meter. Oncor realized the error and notified TXU. But TXU didn’t tell the Brashers.

Turns out the old meters are stored in a warehouse, and photographs are taken showing the final reading. Until PUC got involved, though, nobody bothered to tell the Brashers that. “Seems to be a straightforward question,” Mary Brasher said.

TXU spokesman Michael Patterson accepts blame: “Obviously, we fell a little short. … There was a disconnect here, and I know that’s frustrating to the customer.” (Yes, he said “disconnect.”)

“The rep that responded didn’t connect the dots that maybe there was an issue when they changed the meter.”

TXU is tracking the error, he says, and spreading the word among its personnel about what went wrong. As for taking the complaint to the PUC, he adds, “We certainly don’t want that for a number of reasons.”

The Brashers’ bill is now reconciled. But the couple and TXU aren’t. The Brashers say they’re switching electricity companies.

There’s good news here. If part of the problem is, in fact, canned answers from overseas customer service reps who don’t always understand the complexities of the company they serve, TXU offers a better solution: The company has announced that it is adding new call centers in Abilene and Lubbock and expanding a call center in Irving. The moves are supposed to create and save 500 jobs.

Where are the remaining TXU customer service jobs?

“We don’t disclose specific numbers for our customer contact centers, but with this reconfiguration, the company will have a 70 percent domestic, 30 percent Latin America mix,” Patterson said.

Watchdog Nation has previously reported that TXU call centers were situated in Bangalore, India; Krakow, Poland; and the Philippines.

Those overseas outposts are gone — replaced, Patterson says, by what TXU calls “near-shore operations.” These, he said, are “in Spanish-speaking regions, and they consistently provide us with cost-effective and high-quality service for our customers.”

The Brashers say they don’t care who answers the phone as long as they get correct and honest answers.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber


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Behind the scenes at a troubled Texas electric company

How rare to see what goes on behind the scenes at a Texas electric company.

Watchdog Nation Staff is pleased to see that a smart blogger recognized this fact: On the behind-the-scenes nastiness, as alleged in a lawsuit, involving troubled Amigo Energy, the blogger notes that “the Star Telegram was the only media source” to report this.

Because the live link to Lieber’s column won’t last forever, here is what the founder of Watchdog Nation had to report:

There was the chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch who bought the $35,000 toilet for his office. Then we learned about the peanut butter company CEO who the Food and Drug Administration says knowingly shipped products tainted with salmonella.

The latest? The CEO at a Texas electricity provider who is accused of ignoring state regulators and trying to overcharge customers to save the company.

And who makes these allegations? None other than the company’s previous CEO, who says he was fired when he tried to blow the whistle.

Javier Vega, the former CEO and founder of Amigo Energy of Houston, filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against Amigo’s current owner, Fulcrum Power, in Harris County district court in November.

His lawsuit is more than an employment dispute.

It says, “The case also involves the greed and corruption of certain individuals and legal entities that led to blatant and knowingly illegal efforts to collect improper rates from Texas retail electricity consumers.”

In a brief interview, Amigo’s current CEO said the allegations are false.

“We vehemently deny all of Mr. Vega’s claims,” Gerardo “G.P.” Manalac told me. “We intend to let the litigation go its course.”

He added: “Amigo, like any other retail electric provider, had a very difficult year. But we turned the corner on that and are back on track.”

He said his company is cooperating with an investigation by the Texas Public Utility Commission into allegations of overcharging.

The lawsuit offers a peek at the turmoil behind the scenes at Amigo last year, when hundreds of customers complained that they were overcharged. Many said the company refused to answer their complaints and sent a collection agency after them, sometimes within days of the first bill’s arrival.

The PUC reprimanded the company for violating state rules, but it has yet to levy fines or other penalties.

According to Vega’s lawsuit, the problems stemmed from his decision in 2007 to sell his company to Fulcrum Power of Houston, which was a wholesale electricity provider for Amigo. Vega stayed on as CEO.

The first year went smoothly, the lawsuit says. But last June, Manalac, Fulcrum’s co-founder, took day-to-day operations away from Vega, who kept the CEO title in name only.

Manalac, though, did not buy electricity at lower prices for future use to hedge against price jumps, the lawsuit contends, something that Vega handled when he ran the company. Vega claims that he repeatedly warned Manalac to stop selling fixed-rate contracts to customers because the company hadn’t bought enough electricity at lower prices to make a profit. If prices jumped, he warned, the company could find itself in severe trouble.

Prices did jump, and the company lost $15 million by “gross mismanagement in a mere five months” last year, Vega contends in the suit.

To make up for the loss, the suit says, the company turned to “aggressive price increase methods” aimed at former customers of National Power, which closed in May. Amigo bought National Power’s variable-rate customers, who suddenly found themselves paying higher prices with a new provider.

According to state rules, an electricity provider may not raise rates by more than 10 percent in one month unless a customer is properly notified. Rates for former National Power customers in Dallas went up to 16 cents per kilowatt-hour, and Houston-area customers were stunned to see their rates jump to 20 cents. That increase was handled with proper notification, the suit alleges.

A few weeks later, Amigo again raised the rates for former National Power customers, this time as high as the 24- to 25-cent range. There was no proper notice, and the increase was more than the allowed 10 percent, according to the suit.

Customers were also wrongly billed at the higher rate for a period before the rate took effect, the suit charges. When some customers received several months’ worth of bills at once, they were stunned by the higher rates and called to complain. But they couldn’t reach anyone at Amigo. More than 700 customers complained to the PUC, which launched an investigation. In September, the PUC ordered the company to “rerate” hundreds of customers – lower their bills to the proper amount.

The PUC also cited Amigo for numerous violations – not sending bills to customers, refusing to offer payment arrangements to shellshocked customers, not giving proper notice before an increase and not responding to customer complaints.

The suit contends that Fulcrum cut Amigo’s customer service staff, leaving angry customers with phone waits “in excess of one hour for tens of thousands of Amigo Energy customers.” There was also a backlog of 10,000 unanswered customer e-mails.

PUC staffers were coming down hard on Amigo because of the many complaints. One PUC official, the lawsuit says, asked an Amigo executive whether the company wanted “to continue to be in this business.”

Manalac insisted on a get-tough strategy aimed at customers who owed money, even if the charges were incorrect, the suit says.

He ordered that collection letters be sent to customers only days after their first bills arrived. And he refused the PUC’s directive that Amigo go back and rerate the bills, court papers say.

Manalac sent an e-mail, papers say, urging bill collectors to “to pester these people” to pay. In another e-mail, he wrote, “Allow them no negotiation the first or second round (and then we can go from there).”

Vega talked about quitting, but before he could, the suit says, Fulcrum executives told him he was fired for spreading harmful information about the company.

Vega’s lawyer did not return phone calls. Fulcrum’s lawyer declined to comment.

It may not be a good time for some chief executives, but it can be an even worse time for customers.