Direct Energy sends 628 letters in error

By Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal business writer

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The number of billing errors for a natural gas marketer under investigation by state regulators has grown again.

More than 600 customers in Summit and Medina counties have received letters in error from Direct Energy, adding to a series of mistakes that has brought the company under investigation by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

Direct Energy is owned by a company in the United Kingdom with North American headquarters in Houston.

An earlier mistake involved sending 17,000 letters to the wrong customers in a Summit County aggregation in January 2012 instead of the 3,400 eligible customers. The company has also had several issues where it has either signed up hundreds of people inadvertently to the Summit County group or not signed people up in another community’s aggregation who had enrolled.

The PUCO investigation opened earlier this month was a result of the natural gas marketer’s multiple errors reported in the Beacon Journal in the last year. This week, customers in Summit County townships who did not sign up for the county’s aggregation — as well as customers who live in Medina County, outside the aggregation — have reported receiving a letter from Dominion East Ohio saying they were going to be switched to the Direct Energy-Summit group. Customers said they did not receive the required letters by law from the marketer requiring them to notify the company of their intentions to opt out of the aggregation.

On Tuesday, Direct Energy Senior Vice President and General Manager for the U.S. Residential Business Robert Comstock said a system error inadvertently resent 628 old enrollment files from last year to Dominion East Ohio to be switched to Direct Energy.

“We are working closely with Dominion East Ohio on this issue and have confirmed that none of these accounts will be switched to Direct Energy. All 628 transactions were reversed and Dominion East Ohio will monitor the accounts in their system to ensure they remain with the utility,” Comstock said in an e-mail. “We will be sending apology letters to all impacted customers to explain the inadvertent switch. We will also be making outbound calls immediately to any customer we have phone numbers on record for.”

In a telephone interview from his office in Houston, Comstock said the company was sincerely apologetic for the troubles its errors have caused customers.

“We are sorry anytime we disappoint a customer or make a mistake with a consumer in the marketplace that isn’t our customer. We own responsibility for it and we will always fix it. We’re not happy about this,” said Comstock of the marketer’s problems.

A previous Beacon Journal report told the story of Chris Jurey, a Medina County resident whose gas account was switched to Direct Energy’s Summit County aggregation by mistake. Also, Jurey’s Direct Energy account was inexplicably linked to a Summit County woman with no connection. Both customers received refund checks from Direct Energy.

During an investigation in December, Direct Energy discovered it had switched 372 accounts into the Summit County aggregation and had overcharged customers. The company has since said it improved its system of taking lists of eligible accounts for aggregations from Dominion East Ohio.

However, in the process of sending the apology letters, including offering the customers a cheaper rate and calculating refunds, Direct Energy made more mistakes.

Jurey and his wife, Anne, earlier this month received a letter at their home in Wadsworth with a different woman’s name and their address from Direct Energy apologizing for switching the account and offering restitution.

This weekend, the Jureys received the letter from Dominion notifying them that they again would be switched to Direct Energy’s Summit County aggregation.

“It’s almost laughable,” said Anne Jurey on Tuesday of the continued problems. “For a company that large and with all of the attention brought to all of these issues that they have not gotten these straightened out yet is mind-boggling.”

Comstock acknowledged that some of the apology letters were sent out before the company corrected the addresses in the system. The issue was corrected, and apology letters were sent to the proper list of customers. The first round of reimbursement checks went out to impacted customers on March 14, and the company is awaiting final bills to calculate the next round of reimbursements.

John Williams, director of the PUCO’s Service Monitoring and Enforcement Department, said on Tuesday that the investigation into Direct Energy’s mistakes is continuing. Williams said the number of problems involving Direct Energy was unusual. He said the PUCO will see if Direct Energy fixes the problem to the regulators’ satisfaction.

Williams said his department’s investigation is internal and separate from a commission-ordered investigation, though he could bring a matter before the commission with a recommendation for a more formal investigation, which could include fines and forfeiture of service.

“If the problem is still persistent, I may request that the commission open a formal matter,” he said.

Williams said he is not ready to close the case since more problems continue.

“We thought we had seen the entire iceberg, but obviously there are still things going on,” Williams said.

Other Direct Energy problems have included not enrolling 443 Tallmadge aggregate customers who had made requests for enrollment and customer billing issues in not being switched to the correct rates.

Comstock said the company has been in the Ohio market for many years and has had very few issues before these problems.

The company has grown rapidly in recent years through growth and acquisitions and as the company looks to consolidate to one new system, it has had some issues, Comstock said.

As a result of the Summit County issues, the company is doing “a full and complete scrub of our Ohio base to compare with the utility” to make sure they have the correct customers, he said.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty


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