Apparently, Sperian Energy has taken the expression, “When the cat’s away, the mouse will play” to heart.
After a history of concerns with Sperian Energy, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) last week launched a formal investigation of the alternative electric supplier for its allegedly deceptive and misleading marketing practices.
After receiving a high complaint volume with Sperian in 2012, the the Consumer Services Division (CSD) and Office of Retail Market Development (ORMD) of the ICC worked with Sperian to bring the company into compliance with state regulations. And for awhile, the company seemed to shape up. Complaints dropped significantly and the ICC essentially left the company to its own devices in April 2013.
However, in December 2014, complaints against Sperian were on the rise again, eventually reaching the same levels as before the 2012 intervention. The ICC conducted an analysis of Sperian’s marketing materials and discovered that sales scripts, welcome letters, and contract terms and conditions were rife with deceptive sales practices.
The scripts give customers the overall impression that the calls were not sales calls. In many cases, it appears Sperian marketers implied that they were connected to the utility, the State of Illinois, or a neutral third party helping consumers navigate the electric market— not an energy supplier seeking new business.
- Many scripts direct marketers to say they are following up regarding mail sent about a “choice” or “discount” program. The prospective customer is led to believe that the caller is following up regarding the utility’s consumer education materials and is calling “to help you choose a cheap electric supplier.” Not only were these mailings never sent, the programs never exited in the first place! And consumers are left with the impression that the sales agent is working on behalf of the utility.
- Another script implies that the sales agent works on behalf of the State. The script says, “Recently you may have seen some information notifying you about a discounted rate you may be entitled to receive on the cost of your electricity.” The materials go on to say, “State guidelines dictate that you have been entitled to receive this for some time now; however, it’s not applied automatically. So it has become my job to facilitate this for you today.” Again, the marketing materials imply the sales agent is a neutral third party.
- Some calls tell customers that they qualify for a “rate reduction,” rather than mention the call is to switch suppliers entirely. One script specifically states, “the only change will be that you will be paying a lower rate.”
The scripts also imply guaranteed savings by using misleading words such as “savings,” “lower,” and “low.” And no mention is made of how Sperian’s $4.93 monthly charge will affect overall prices for customers, depending on the amount of their usage.
Particularly damning is the fact that the ICC report shows that Sperian modified two of its scripts before submitting them to the ICC in early April. Check out the screen capture below from the report (the crossed-out words are what Sperian edited out):
Thank you to the ICC for stepping up for Illinois consumers by investigating the company.
“The Commission is determined to investigate and hold accountable companies that are potentially misleading customers about their utility bills,”said ICC Commissioner Miguel del Valle in a news release.