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PUC Staff Alleges Video Shows Retail Energy Sales Agent In Door To Door Visit Not Wearing Mask, Not Leaving Premises When Asked, and Making False Statements

Staff Alleges Agent Tells Customer That Bill Will Increase Due To COVID-19

Staff Seeks Suspension Of Suppliers' Certificates Pending Investigation

Suppliers Halt Door-to-Door Marketing, "Appalled" By Behavior Of Single Sales Rep

Suppliers Terminate Relationship With Agent & Suspend Vendor; Say Suppliers' Protocols Not Followed

June 30, 2020

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Copyright 2010-20
Reporting by Paul Ring •

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Staff of the Service Monitoring and Enforcement Division (SMED) of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio stated in a letter, to PUCO's docketing division, that SMED's Staff (hereafter, 'Staff') is investigating the marketing, sales, and enrollment practices of SFE Energy Ohio, Inc. (SFE Energy) and Statewise Energy Ohio, LLC (Statewise), as Staff alleged in the letter that, among other things, video shows an agent for SFE conducting a door to door sales call while allegedly not wearing a mask, allegedly not leaving the doorstep when asked, and allegedly informing the customer that their bill would be increasing due to COVID-19.

Staff stated that, "SFE Energy and Statewise are affiliates. SFE Energy, Inc. is the parent company of both entities, owning 100% of SFE Energy and 51% of Statewise."

Staff said in the letter that, "Although Staff’s investigation is ongoing, Staff is concerned that the nature of SFE Energy and Statewise’s deceptive and misleading tactics need to be immediately addressed by the Commission."

Staff alleged that, "Based on video evidence provided to Staff, as described below, Staff is deeply concerned that CRES and CRNGS providers in Ohio would prey upon customers’ anxiety and fears in the middle of the current global pandemic."

SFE Energy and Statewise Energy provided the following statement to concerning the matter:

"SFE Energy and Statewise Energy have been working cooperatively and diligently with PUCO Staff to address this incident, which appears to be limited to a single representative. We are appalled by this sales representative’s behavior and false statements made in the video. Moreover, the sales representative did not follow our detailed and comprehensive company health and safety protocols which require extensive personal protective equipment to be worn at all times when conducting in person sales. When we were notified of this matter we immediately terminated our relationship with the sales representative and launched an internal investigation. We have also suspended all operations with the vendor that the sales representative was working for.

"Prior to reinitiating in-person sales, SFE Energy developed and implemented comprehensive marketing protocols which included public health and safety precautions before, during, and after any sales interaction with a potential customer, along with a detailed monitoring and compliance process to oversee adherence to those protocols. Among other things, SFE Energy’s marketing protocols require all sales representatives to submit a completed health assessment form, which includes a temperature check and multi-question evaluation, as well as confirm that each sales representative has access to, and is wearing, all required personal protective equipment (face mask, gloves and/or hand sanitizer) prior to beginning work each day.

"This individual sales representative’s behavior is not reflective of SFE Energy’s strict sales training and compliance processes -- in particular the public health precautions noted above -- and appears to be an isolated incident at this time. As a result of this incident being brought to our attention, SFE Energy and StateWise Energy have decided to halt all door-to-door sales activity in Ohio while we work with PUCO Staff to address any concerns they may have."

--- Statement from SFE Energy and Statewise Energy, all emphasis by the companies

Staff said in the letter that, "For the reasons set forth below, Staff asks the Commission to formally open a proceeding for Staff to continue its investigation, and to suspend Statewise and SFE Energy’s certificates to operate in Ohio pending resolution of Staff’s investigation."

Staff alleged that, "on June 24, 2020, in the course of SMED Staff investigating a customer complaint, the customer sent Staff a video, recorded by the customer’s doorbell camera, of an SFE Energy agent at the customer’s home attempting to get information from the customer’s utility bills."

Staff alleged that, "In the video, the SFE Energy agent is not wearing a mask, in possible violation of the Commission’s Door-to- Door Entry [door to door resumption order]. Further, the SFE Energy agent does not leave the customer’s doorstep when asked by the customer and continues to make false and misleading statements."

Staff alleged that, during the exchange, the SFE Energy agent made statements that:

• The agent is there on behalf of the customer’s gas and electric local distribution utilities to complete a service check;

• The agent is there to check what tariff code is on the customer’s bill; and

• The customer’s utility bills may go up because of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

Further, Staff alleged that, "on June 26, 2020, a utility notified Staff that SFE Energy agents were engaging in unconscionable and egregious door-to-door sales tactics."

Staff alleged that, "The utility sent Staff a video, recorded by a doorbell camera, of an SFE Energy agent at a customer’s home. In the video, the SFE Energy agent is talking to the customer through the doorbell camera, attempting to obtain a copy of the customer’s bill. The SFE Energy agent is not wearing a mask, in possible violation of the Commission’s Door-to-Door Entry."

In this instance, Staff alleged that the SFE Energy agent makes several false, misleading, and unconscionable statements to the customer during the exchange, including statements that:

• The agent is there on behalf of the customer’s gas and electric local distribution utilities;

• The purpose of the agent’s visit is to verify that the customer is being billed under the proper code; and

• The customer’s bill is going to increase in one to two billing cycles due to the coronavirus and COVID-19.

More broadly, Staff alleged, "Between January 1, 2020 and June 26, 2020, SMED’s call center received 49 customer contacts regarding SFE Energy’s provision of CRES and CRNGS, and 76 contacts regarding Statewise, for a total of 125 contacts."

Staff alleged, "During the course of Staff’s investigation into many of these contacts, Staff identified a pattern of misleading and deceptive practices, disputed enrollments, and possible violation of the Commission’s June 17, 2020 Entry allowing CRES and CRNGS marketers to resume door-to-door marketing in Case No. 20-591-AU-ORD (Commission’s Door-to-Door Entry). Due to the nature of these complaints, Staff began investigating SFE’s and Statewise’s marketing and enrollment practices in Ohio."

Staff alleged, "Staff received several customer contacts regarding Statewise agents engaging in misleading and deceptive door-to-door sales practices. Customers alleged that Statewise agents were promising that the customer’s bills would be lower by enrolling with Statewise. Also, Staff has recently received additional customer contacts regarding misleading telemarketing calls. Customers are advised that they are being over-charged or eligible for a thirty percent discount on their bill. Staff continues to investigate these complaints and requested sales calls and corresponding documentation."

Staff said, "due to the egregious nature of the conduct at issue, Staff also recommends that during the pendency of Staff’s investigation the Commission consider one of the following actions: a suspension of SFE and Statewise’s certificates; conditional rescission of its certificates; or rescission of its certificates, in accordance with Ohio Adm.Code 4901:1-21-12(A)(2), 4901:1-24-13; 4901:1-27-13 and 4901:1-34-08(D)."

Staff said that Staff would not be opposed to the Commission allowing SFE Energy and Statewise to continue to serve their current customers, "but the companies should be prohibited from marketing, soliciting, and enrolling new customers in Ohio."

Case 20-1216-GE-COI

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