Complaints are down 10 percent this year from customers in Texas' deregulated electricity market, but there are still some troubling pockets of problems.The Public Utility Commission received 8,558 complaints in the fiscal year ending Aug. 31 from 6.7 million residential and small commercial customers in the retail electricity market, which includes most of Dallas-Fort Worth.That's about half as many complaints as two years ago, when they peaked, but still more than five times the number before deregulation in 2001, according to an analysis by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, a coalition of around 150 Texas cities that buys electricity in the deregulated market."The decline reflects that generally people are not getting the outrageous bills they did as prices came down from 2010," said R.A. "Jake" Dyer, policy analyst at the coalition. "But we think the overall number of complaints is just the tip of the iceberg. It reflects trends in which people are upset about something enough to go through a formal complaint process."The analysis shows that some problems in the retail electricity market have been fixed but that new problem areas for consumers have popped up.Among complaints that seem to be fixed is the practice by retailers of not notifying customers when their contract is up and putting them automatically into a higher-cost plan. A PUC rule now requires retailers to give 30 days notification to customers before their contract expires, PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said.But complaints about electric retailers placing holds on customer accounts increased almost sixfold over the past year, from 44 in 2011 to 303 in 2012. Account holds are now allowed because of a new PUC rule that says retailers may keep customers from moving to another retailer if they fall behind in paying their bills or are suspected of tampering with their meters, Dyer said.The "switch-hold" policy protects the retailers by not allowing customers to move if their account is in dispute -- a protection not afforded any other retailer in the state, Dyer said."If the hold is for meter tampering, then the customer has no due process. You're responsible for what happens to your meter," he said. "If the hold is for nonpayment, then the state effectively becomes the enforcer of the repayment instead of the retailer."Hadley said the switch-hold policy, which took effect in June 2011, was designed to avoid a similar issue among long-distance telephone customers in the 1990s."Customers were switching long-distance companies and leaving a trail of unpaid bills behind them," he said. "Electricity is more of a long-term relationship than going to the grocery store for a purchase. We feel the overall number of complaints is relatively low and the new rule is doing its job."To help consumers make more-informed decisions, the PUC added a complaint summary this year for each of the 65 electric retailers in the state at www.PowerToChoose.com. The summary shows the last six months of complaint data detailed by category. The largest categories include slamming, or illegally placing customers into a plan without their approval; billing; and customer service.In the most recent, Just Energy Texas of Houston, owned by a Canadian energy company, had the most complaints with 288, almost as many as TXU and Reliant even though those retailers have many more customers.Just Energy is rated "higher than average" for complaints by the PUC, which scores retailers on a six-month average of complaints per thousand customers and posts scores on PowerToChoose.com. TXU and Reliant had the lowest complaint rates on the Score Card.Just Energy, which offers three plans in DFW, could not be reached for comment.There are 259 electricity plans available to North Texans from 47 retailers, a field that makes choosing a provider difficult, Dyer said."This is just too complicated," he said. "It's really overwhelmingly difficult to sort through the weeds."Dyer said his consortium plans to push for more transparency in the PUC website by allowing consumers to see the complaint record of each retailer as they sort for price and type of plan, instead of looking through a report posted on a different Web page. In addition, the coalition plans to push the Legislature to make each retailer provide one standard plan with the same terms such as a 12-month fixed-rate plan and listing them separately on the website so that consumers can more easily compare companies, he said.The PUC has 20 employees in its consumer protection division who handle electric retailer and telephone land-line complaints, Hadley said. If the complaints turn into more serious cases, they are forwarded to the PUC's oversight and enforcement division or legal division.Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays.TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net
Where to complain
The Public Utility Commission's Office of Customer Protection will investigate consumer complaints. To make a complaint, call 888-782-8477, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or file through the website, www.puc.state.tx.us/consumer/complaint/Complaint.aspx.
The Fort Worth Better Business Bureau takes consumer complaints and offers a complaint history of electric retailers by company at www.fwbbb.org or by calling 817-332-7585.
Review complaint data for each electric provider at www.powertochoose.com. Click on Compare Offers then on Customer Complaint Statistics.