Utility spending on rate-hike cases shows what CUB is up against

20160925_reducedcablepouch_fbSince 2010, Illinois’ biggest utilities have spent $40 million trying to raise consumer rates before the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC)—an amount that could fund CUB’s entire outreach, legal and consumer advocacy operations for at least 15 years.

The lofty figure illustrates what CUB’s legal and policy teams are up against as they fight more than $4 billion in rate-hike battles before the ICC.

To give some background, state law allows electric, natural gas and water utilities to require customers to pay a large portion of their legal fees. These fees, hidden on our utility bills, cover the costs the utilities accrue hiring outside legal firms and experts as they fight for rate hikes.

CUB supports legislation in Springfield that would require Illinois utilities to make shareholders—not ratepayers—cover such fees.

In the meantime, these figures give a glimpse into the utilities’ deep war chests.

“No question, we have to be on top of our game against the utilities’ high-priced lawyers,” said CUB General Counsel Julie Soderna. “But CUB has helped cut utility bills by more than $20 billion over the years because we know how to operate on a tight budget and we have Illinois consumers on our side.”

Here’s how the $40 million figure breaks down for individual utilities:

ComEd: $10.5 million
Nicor Gas: $7.2 million
Peoples Gas: $6.8 million
Illinois-American Water,
Aqua Illinois: $6.8 million
North Shore Gas: $5.7 million
Ameren Illinois: $3.4 million

Total: $40.4 million

Join the fight against $4 billion in higher rates. (If you give a donation, we’ll send you a special gift–in September only!) 

 

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Prepare your home for the cold!

It may be hard to believe that winter is coming with balmy temperatures on the first day of fall, But now is the time to prepare your home for the cold months ahead.

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Make sure your windows and doors are properly prepared by:

  • Inspecting cracked or broken glass, examining door frames for signs a decay, leaks or drafts and checking for a draft around your windows and doors.
  • Installing storm doors and windows before it gets too cold.
  • Checking the draft around your doors and windows. Caulk holes and add weather-stripping, if needed.

Another home-preparedness tip most people miss is making sure their insulation is in good shape. Follow these tips to make sure it’s in adequate condition:

  • Check the attic in your home and make sure it has insulation, it can be the most cost-effective way to cut heating costs. If you have an older house, it might not have adequate insulation, or maybe not any at all.
  • Weatherstrip and insulate the hatch to your attic to prevent warm air from escaping from the top of your house.
  • Seal holes in your attic that lead to the house. Any hole that leads from your basement or lower level to an attic will waste energy. Cover holes with spray foam and foam board if necessary.

Finally, make sure your heating vents are in good condition before it breaks.

  • Make sure to inspect the vents to make sure they are open and unblocked by furniture or other items.
  • Close the damper to your fireplace (if you have one) once a fire is completely out.
  • Replace your heater’s air filter if necessary. Your heating system will use less energy and last longer. If you have a heating system that’s older than 15 years old, consider updating it with a newer, more efficient model.

Other quick things you can do include:

  • Reverse your ceiling fans. If your fan has a reverse switch, use it to run the blades in a clockwise direction after you turn on the heat. The fan will produce an updraft and push down heated air from the ceiling.
  • Clean your gutters. If they’re full of leaves and other debris, they can damage roofing, siding and wood trim, which can cause leaks that feed into your house.
  • Turn off exterior faucets. If you don’t drain the water in your pipes, they can freeze, which will cause them to burst as the ice expands. Start by disconnecting all garden hoses and drain all the water remaining in your faucet.
  • Restock your cold weather equipment before you need it. Don’t wait for the first storm to restock essentials like rock salt.

For more tips, visit CUB’s energy efficiency page.

Want more information? Read these:

U.S. Department of Energy 

Consumer Energy Center

Cost-effective tips

Kiplinger

 

Posted in Cold weather tips, Efficiency, electric, Electric bills, Energy, energy efficiency, Natural Gas | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A gift from CUB!

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Click on the photograph to claim your special CUB gift.

As a special offer in September only, you can earn a gift with a donation of $30 or more.

It’s a 3-in-1 cellphone charging cable in a sporty CUB pouch. You’ll have the power to charge your phone and charge the fight for lower utility bills!

The pouch will keep all your necessary cords in one convenient place, with a zippered closure. The pouch is decorated with the CUB logo, so you can let others know that you help fight high utility bills!

As a reminder, your contribution helps CUB’s two-person legal team (Julie and Christie), who are now working on 18 cases, including these major battles:

  • $138 million ComEd rate hike
  • $43 million Illinois-American Water rate hike.
  • $30 million Ameren electric rate cut.
  • $4 billion for a massive Peoples Gas pipe-replacement plan rife with wasteful spending.

Your donation also helps our outreach team hold hundreds of events that help consumers like you lower their costs. It also gives a big boost to our consumer advocates, who help thousands of consumers with complaints about their utility companies.

Join the fight and claim your gift!

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DEA uncovers scam that could net you a refund

AT&T has agreed to pay nearly $7.8 million to settle government allegations that the phone giant allowed scammers to charge some customers about $9 a month for a fake directory assistance service, uncovered in a sting from, of all places, the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The settlement, announced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in August, is the latest action against the “cramming” scam. Cramming is when a third party bills you for unauthorized charges. Scam artists take advantage of complex telecom bills to hide fraudulent charges–usually less than $10 a month–among the other legitimate fees you receive on a monthly basis.

AT&T will issue refunds, totaling almost $7 million, to current and former customers who were charged the fee since 2012. AT&T also agreed to pay a $950,000 fine to the government.

The company is working on a plan to distribute the refunds to customers who received the unauthorized third-party charges, according to an FCC statement.

In the last five years, the FCC has taken more than 30 enforcement actions against phone carriers for cramming and unauthorized carrier switches. In this case, the FCC says AT&T received a fee from companies that added the charges to customer bills but never provided the services they promised.

The DEA stumbled onto the scam while probing a drug-sales and money-laundering operation.

The DEA discovered the scam while investigating two Cleveland-area companies, Discount Director, Inc. (DDI) and Enhanced Telecommunications Services (ETS) for drug-related crimes and money laundering.

In the course of seizing drugs, cars, jewelry, gold and computers totaling close to $3.4 million from the companies’ associates, DEA investigators found financial documents related to a scheme to defraud telephone customers, according to an FCC release.

“A phone bill should not be a tool for drug traffickers, money launderers, and other unscrupulous third parties to fleece American consumers,” said FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc in a statement. “Today’s settlement ensures that AT&T customers who were charged for this sham service will get their money back and that all AT&T consumers will enjoy greater protections against unauthorized charges on their phone bills in the future.”

Under the settlement, AT&T has agreed to cease billing for nearly all third-party products and services and it is required to obtain express consent from customers before allowing third-party charges on their phone bills.

This isn’t the first time AT&T has been in hot water with the FCC. In 2014, the company agreed to pay $105 million in fines and refunds to current and former customers for unauthorized third-party subscriptions and premium text messaging services as part of a global cramming settlement with the FCC.

 

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Sign our petition: Free us from cable box fees!

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to break Pay TV’s hold on the traditional set-top box market. And that could be good news to customers, who pay about $20 billion each year to rent the boxes.

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The proposal developed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler could face a vote at a Sept. 29 meeting–so please sign our petition urging the commission to pass the plan.

Wheeler has said cable subscribers “essentially have no choices” but to pay an average of $231 a year to rent set-top boxes from cable and satellite TV providers. He proposes allowing families to avoid the rental fees by requiring cable and satellite TV providers to offer them the option of viewing their channels through services that provide streaming video over the Internet.

As expected Pay TV is pushing back. In an FCC filing, the National Cable and Telecommunications association said Wheeler’s plan would “have the effect of chilling innovation” in developing methods for consumers to access programming.

Nope, says John Bergmayer, senior counsel for the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge: “This will increase competition and innovation in the video marketplace while making it easier for programmers and creators who aren’t carried by cable to get equal billing in viewers’ homes.”

Take action now! 

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Are you due for an AT&T refund?

AT&T has agreed to pay nearly $7.8 million to settle government allegations that the phone giant allowed scammers to charge some customers about $9 a month for a fake directory assistance service.

The settlement, announced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in August, is the latest action against the “cramming” scam. Cramming is when a third party bills you for unauthorized charges. Scam artists take advantage of complex telecom bills to hide fraudulent charges–usually less than $10 a month–among the other legitimate fees you receive on a monthly basis. 

In the last five years, the FCC has taken more than 30 enforcement actions against phone carriers for cramming and unauthorized carrier switches. In this case, the FCC says AT&T received a fee from companies that added the charges to customer bills but never provided the services they promised.

Under the settlement, AT&T has agreed to cease billing for nearly all third-party products and services and it is required to obtain express consent from customers before allowing third-party charges on their phone bills.

AT&T will issue refunds, totaling almost $7 million, to current and former customers who were charged the fee since 2012. AT&T also agreed to pay a $950,000 fine to the government.

The company is working on a plan to distribute the refunds to customers who received the unauthorized third-party charges, according to an FCC statement.

This isn’t the first time AT&T has been in hot water with the FCC. In 2014, the company agreed to pay $105 million in fines and refunds to current and former customers for unauthorized third-party subscriptions and premium text messaging services as part of a global cramming settlement with the FCC.

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iPhone customer “filled with glee” after avoiding $999 fee

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Consumer Rights Specialist Annie Warnock

Thanks to CUB’s help, a Chicago woman saved almost $1,000.

According to a CUB complaint, Doretha started experiencing problems with her iPhone this past June—but an AT&T agent told her she qualified for a new phone.

The only reason she considered the offer, Annie said, is because AT&T said she was eligible for an upgrade.

Doretha “asked several times if the phone was really free” the complaint said. And time and time again she was told it was.

But after accepting the offer, Doretha received a bill for $999—and an outdated iPhone.

She disputed back and forth with AT&T, and then took her complaint to CUB Consumer Rights Specialist Annie Warnock, arguing that the agent gave her false information.

Annie, a 10-year veteran of CUB, filed a complaint with AT&T and helped Doretha avoid the charge.“She told me, ‘Why would I pay $1,000 for a lesser phone?’” Annie said.

On August 19, about two weeks after she had first taken the complaint, Annie heard the good news from Doretha. The consumer advocate recorded this response in the complaint files.

Doretha “was filled with glee. She called to say thanks, thanks, thanks,” Annie wrote. “She wants to become a member, tell her friends about CUB, possibly participate as a volunteer, and, of course, would like to share her story.”

Questions about your utility service? Call CUB’s Consumer Hotline, 1-800-669-5556, like Doretha did, or file an online inquiry, at www.CitizensUtilityBoard.org.

Posted in AT&T, Consumer Victories | Tagged , | Leave a comment