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PUC Staff Would Grant Retail Supplier's Requested Waiver Related To TPVs

June 8, 2022

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Copyright 2010-21
Reporting by Paul Ring •

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Staff of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio would grant a request from Vista Energy Marketing L.P. for waivers of certain rules governing the third-party verification ('TPV') process for new customers enrolled through sales channels requiring a TPV

Specifically, Vista (Applicant) requests to modify the third-party verification process for Ohio Adm.Code Rules 4901:1-21-06(D)(1)(h) (the 'Electric TPV Rule'), 4901:1-29- 06(D)(6)(b) (the 'Gas TPV Rule'), and 4901:1-29-06(E)(1) in order to use a digital TPV.

The Applicant seeks a waiver of certain rules governing the TPV process to allow the customer to complete the verification process through a digital confirmation without diminishing consumer protections, Staff noted

Staff believes the waiver request is limited to door-to-door sales

Vista said that the proposed digital confirmation process will function similarly to and will achieve the same goal as a traditional voice TPV. The sole difference is that the verifier’s interaction with the customer will occur through text or email-driven prompts on the customer’s own device, rather than through voice communication.

Under the waiver, the TPV process would be conducted after the marketing agent has left the property Vista provides all third-party marketing agents a tablet to use during various sales channels including door-to-door marketing. The sales process and enrollment would occur on the Vista devise, while the TPV process would occur on the customer’s personal device

Under the Vista's proposed process for the Ohio market, customers will have the option of conducting the SMS TPV on their personal device or selecting a telephonic TPV as required under the Electric TPV Rule and the Gas TPV Rule.

A customer that elects the digital TPV will be prompted with an SMS text or email and directed to an authentication link. After the customer’s identity is verified and the location record is confirmed and stored, the disclosures for the gas and/or electric TPV will appear as required by rule. The digital TPV process will require the customer to confirm all verification questions individually and complete an e-sign form. Upon completion of the TPV by the customer, a confirmation message and a link to the signed copy of the contract with the terms and conditions is provided via SMS. The Applicant will maintain the digital TPV records as required by the Ohio Adm.Code 4901:1-21-06(D)(2)(b)(ii) and Ohio Adm.Code 4901:1-29-06(D)(6)(b)(iv).

Vista said that, as a safeguard against slamming, geolocation features are built into the digital TPV platform, and an account holder will be prevented from starting the verification process until they have positively confirmed the salesperson has left the property

When the account holder clicks the link in the text message or email, they will be taken to a second location permission and identity authentication page. The account holder will be asked for consent to share their location, and in order to proceed, the digital TPV process will require confirmation from the account holder that the salesperson has left the property and is no longer in the vicinity of the account holder

Staff said that, "After reviewing the Application, Staff believes that the Applicant is requesting a waiver of the TPV requirements for the door-to-door enrollment process and not for telephonic enrollments. Staff supports a waiver to remove terms 'audio recording,' 'verbal,' and 'telephonically' in the before mentioned rules, when a digital TPV is sent to a customer’s personal device during the door-to-door enrollment process, and the customer completes the TPV without a sales agent or representative present. Staff believes the geolocation of the sales agent will help ensure that the customer is completing the TPV without the sales agent present."

"Staff recognizes that verifying enrollment with gas or electric suppliers provides valuable safeguards while protecting consumers’ interests. Additionally, Staff believes any rule revisions should be conducted during the rulemaking process. While the rule review process outlined in Case Nos. 17-1843-EL-ORD and 17-1847-GA-ORD is far more beneficial to the Commission and the industry to use to set universal standards, the process does take time. Therefore, Staff recommends that, if approved, this waiver should only be effective during the pendency of the rule review for Ohio Adm.Code 4901:1-21-06 and 4901:1-29-06," Staff said

"In conclusion, Staff recommends that the Commission grant the waiver requested in this Application, with the conditions that the waiver(s) be clearly limited to only the requirement for telephonic verbal TPV verification during door-to-door enrollment and when a digital TPV is completed on a customer’s personal device by the customer, and that the waiver expires when the Commission issues its final rules in Case No. 17-1843- EL-ORD and 171847-GA-ORD," Staff said

The Ohio Consumers' Counsel, along with other consumer advocates, opposed the waiver

"Third-party telephonic verification involving back-and-forth interactive human communication remains the best protection for consumers to verify whether they want to switch natural gas or electric suppliers," OCC said

"Under the current rules there are still a disturbing amount of marketer violations," OCC said. Referencing another supplier, OCC said, "Very recently, the PUCO opened an investigation against another marketer for slamming consumers through third-party verification shortcuts." In another case involving another supplier, OCC said, "PUCO Staff found that the marketer was [allegedly] abusing consumers through digital third-party verifications while the marketer’s waiver request (similar to what Vista seeks in its Application here) was still pending with the PUCO."

OCC further said that the geolocation function is not an adequate safeguard

"Geolocation tracking systems are not always accurate. There is no way to be certain that a salesperson has left the consumer’s home. The salesperson could still be there coaching the consumer on the answers to give concerning the verification questions. Finally, there is no independence in the verification process if Vista is involved in confirming the validity of the sales transaction between the consumer and their employee/agent,' OCC said

Case No. 22-332-GE-WVR

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