As Chicago's two-year, locked-in deal with Constellation Energy came to an end this summer, watchdogs began to worry.
"We're concerned it will be open season on Chicago consumers," Citizens' Utility Board Jim Chilsen said. "That there will be people going door to door or calling you on the phone and trying to sign you up for a deal that may not be a very good deal."
Their concerns come on the end of a noteworthy experiment: Chicago was the largest city to step into the bulk-buying of power in pursuit of better rates for residents. But the two-year contract ended as ComEd's rates dropped and became close to what competition can offer. The end of the deal sends about 2 million customers back into the marketplace, automatically switched back to ComEd, but now fielding calls, visits and mailers from the more than 50 companies licensed to supply energy.
Some of those companies will step over the line in their pursuit of new business, Chilsen said, pointing to one particular company, Sperian Energy, which is now under scrutiny by state regulators.
Mary Buenaventura, a Rockford resident and one of dozens of consumers who complained about Sperian's methods, shared her story with NBC 5 Investigates. Buenaventura began by pointing to the four signs on her front door that make her position pretty clear: They say "Keep out!" Still, she said, it happens on a regular basis.
"For at least five years, they've been knocking on my door, coming here, harassing me," Buenaventura told NBC 5 Investigates. She is talking in general about Alternative Retail Electric Supply companies and specifically about the one that she accuses of switching her to their business by tricking her. She complained to state and local authorities about Sperian.
"They pretend to be ComEd," Buenaventura said. "They do not take 'no' for an answer. They promise to lower rates and insist you show them your old bills."
"From January through August, we received 24 complaints about Sperian, which means we get a complaint about every other week about the company," Chilsen said.
The complaints about Sperian also caught state regulators' attention. The Illinois Commerce Commission launched an inquiry into Sperian's marketing methods after seeing a spike in complaints about the energy supplier. A staff report order by ICC this summer may offer some answers.
Finding tactics that include repeated use of false or misleading words in the company's pitches and repeated failure to disclose that a call is a sales call from an independent seller of energy services, as is required. And then there was a marketing script that the company allegedly doctored right before handing it over to the state, redacting and softening misleading language the state says its employees used.
Chilsen calls the discovery of the doctored script "troubling."
"Through the metadata they were able to figure out when it was changed and how it was changed," Chilsen told NBC 5 Investigates. "What's astounding about this is it exposes how some of these companies do business, I think, with misleading pitches."
ICC Commissioner Miguel del Valle could not comment on the specifics of the ongoing Sperian inquiry, but he says there's plenty of concern about sales tactics to go around.
"We are not going to, in any fashion, tolerate representatives providing misinformation or actually lying to people at the door or on the phone or even in the mail to secure a contract," del Valle said.
He urges consumers who field calls or visits to ask tough questions about the company and its rates and beware of any promise of savings.
Del Valle warns of a common trick that involves a representative asking to see a consumer's current ComEd bill.
"One of the red flags immediately is someone at the door or on the phone insisting that you provide them with your ComEd account number," del Valle said. With that number, a company can switch you over, though your explicit permission is required.
When NBC 5 Investigates contacted Sperian Energy about the state's report and Buenaventura's specific complaint, the company provided the following statement:
"We believe that the ICC Staff misunderstood the documents that Sperian submitted to the Commission. Now that we are in a docketed proceeding, we will have the opportunity to respond, and our response will be filed tomorrow at the Commission. The Company has always been committed to meeting all of its regulatory requirements. We take each customer complaint seriously and review each complaint thoroughly. That being said, we respectfully decline to comment on any complaint as it is our position that this violates the confidentiality requirement with the customer."
Sperian filed that response with the ICC Wednesday.
The ICC offers these FAQs for consumers who are thinking about switching to an alternative supplier.