"Hi! I'm from PG&E!" - aggressive selling tactics from members of the Core Gas Aggregation program

I was sitting on the porch one nice evening this summer, enjoying the cool breeze after a hot day, and reading a trade journal as the sun was setting.

A car I've never seen before pulled up across the street, and 2 people got out, carrying clipboards.  One was a a stocky gentleman in a dark shirt and blue jeans, and the other was a blond woman in a purple shirt and blue shorts. The driver of the car drove off, and the people went different directions and started knocking on doors.

Eventually one arrived at my porch. He was carrying a clipboard that clearly had "PG&E" written on it. (Pacific Gas and Electric is my energy supplier) He also had a very official laminated badge clipped to his shirt, with a name and something that might have been an official PG&E logo on it. It definitely had the PG&E blue and white colors.

He told me his name was "Brad" and that he was from PG&E.  Actually, as part of his opening spiel, he said very clearly, "I'm with PG&E, and I'd like to examine your PG&E bill in order to get the savings that are due to you."

Every single scam "spidey sense" I have went crazy.

I very carefully explained to Brad that I didn't know him, and why would I possibly be interested in helping him with potential identity theft? I'm afraid I may have been both more than a little incredulous and vehement.

"Brad" said again that PG&E knew about this, and had approved him coming to me to talk to me about my bill. This didn't quite connect with what he had said earlier. I decided to test him.

"Great!" I replied. "PG&E knows my name and account number. You just tell me what they are so that I can know that you work for PG&E!"

Brad didn't know my account number or my name. He told me that he was "approved by PG&E".  He still wanted to help me save money on my PG&E bill, and he showed me his metal clipboard, with the header cut off of an official PG&E bill, pasted to the clipboard, and something that looked like a bill under it.

Here's something a few people know about me. Briefly, I sold Kirby vacuum cleaners. Don't get me wrong - this is the overpriced Cadillac of vacuums, but the sales tactics that are taught to the commission-only sales force are strictly "Hard Sell", and more than a little brutal. After a couple of months of that I quit, and found that I'd become immunized to hard sells.

And Brad was not just hard selling, he was being dishonest about it. If you're not totally straight with me then I won't buy your product. I sent Brad on his way.  He told me to "have a nice day", and I said "Bye now."


Tonight it happened again, my wife brought this young guy into my back yard, around 8 pm and very much after dark. He'd knocked on the front door, told my wife that he was, "from PG&E" and that it was very important that he talk to us about our bill. He made it sound terrible - some unfortunate billing error that he needed to clear up.

He had a metal clipboard with "PG&E" on it, and a very official badge clipped to his shirt. Otherwise he was dressed casually. Unlike Brad, this gentleman wasn't so easy to give up on a sale.

After verifying (again) that he was NOT with PG&E, but was a different gas supplier, this young man started trying to show me that PG&E was buying gas for "x dollars" and selling it to me for "4 times x dollars". His company, "Blue Spruce" would save me 20% off the PG&E price.

I told the young man that lying was not a good way to get a sale, and shooed him out of my backyard. I probably wasn't very pleasant about it.


Core Gas Aggregation Programs

So here's what I learned.

There is something called a Core Gas Aggregation program.  This program allows an approved list of gas sellers, called Core Transport Agents (CTA), to sell gas to the customer through PG&E's pipelines.  I gather this was done through legislation to prevent PG&E from becoming a monopoly.

I later found out that Brad was selling from a CTA called Commerce Energy Inc.  But the tactics used by Brad were so much like tonight's that it wouldn't surprise me if both salesmen were working for another company that represented Blue Spruce and Commerce Energy.

There are some benefits from buying gas through a CTA.  You can get a lower bill.  Depending on how much gas you use, and the amount the CTA charges, this could be substantial.

But there are some things you should be aware of.

Core Transport Agents are not regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).  This means that if you have a billing error, a dispute, or any other sort of problem with the CTA, the CPUC will not come to your assistance.  You could be stuck fighting about it in court.

CTAs may not be very robust.  It is possible for a CTA to go out of business.  If you sign up with one, you should know who you're dealing with.  For example, I would NOT recommend Blue Spruce - it gets a "B" rating from the BBB because it was just put together recently (2012).  Besides their deceptive sales practices, they don't have a track record.  I would suggest that you investigate any possible CTA on the stock exchange, in the BBB, and by talking to others who have used them.

I would also suggest that it is probably a bad idea to make your decision with a guy you just met on your front porch.

CTAs also require you to sign a contract.  This could include a check on your credit, and a contract that binds you into something that you may feel differently about later.  I know how much I hate 2 year cell phone contracts.  I would really want to know all the details of a CTA contract.  I'm definitely allergic to fine print.

As I linked to above, there are a LOT of different CTAs.  When "Brad" knocks at your front door, he won't tell you this.  Wal-mart never advertises Target - why would they?  If it were up to Blue Spruce, they would be just fine if you never knew that other CTAs existed.  Neither salesman that knocked at my door bothered to explain the Core Gas Aggregation Program to me.

And last, being part of a government regulated provider gives you some benefits that CTAs might not be able to give you.  For example, PG&E offers a "Balanced Payment Plan", where your monthly bill is actually an average of the last 12 months, so it doesn't fluctuate very much.  This allows you to better estimate your bills, and avoids those bills that shock you during a Fresno heat wave.  CTAs don't offer this.


Why I won't buy from Blue Spruce or Commerce Energy Inc

They both lied.

And I'm not the only one that CTAs are lying to.  If you step on my front porch and tell me that you're "from PG&E" you had better back that up by showing that you already know my name and account number.  If you can't, you get the boot, and you lose ANY chance to sell to me.

It is as simple as this.  If you have to use deceptive, high pressure sales tactics in order to sell your product, then I don't want it.  If you think so little of me as a customer to treat me this way to sign me up, then how can I expect to be treated when I'm under your contract, when you don't have to follow any sort of State mediation?

No thanks.  Now, GET OFF MY LAWN!


Unknown said...

You still need to do some more research. Some of the info u provided about Blue Spruce or CTAs are not all correct. You seem to only be speaking your mind. Every gas supplier has their own way of tracking and not all of them requires a fee to get in or credit card. Blue Spruce is one that is free and does not require credit card. It's totally free to get in and get out. I have worked with and managed numerous companies that deals with CTAs and more than 50% of the things you've stated on here are not true. PG&E is NOT a gas supplier. They dig up the pipes, run the lines, and do the fixtures, and also manage the billings from their suppliers to be sent to their customers.

Calladus said...

It's a good thing that I didn't say anything about a "fee to get in" or "requiring a credit card". It's a good thing that I didn't say that PG&E is a gas supplier.

So more than 50% of what you said is not true.

Which is ironic, since the main point of my blog post is that door to door salesstaff for the Core Gas Aggregation program tend to lie.

But hey, any of my readers can follow the links in this post and see where I got my information

Unknown said...

I think 50% mis-information to to the public to caution them about misrepresentations is quite different from 50% fraud for unjust gain. The first has the intent to help the general public, the latter is illegal and immoral.

Unknown said...

They got my 70 year old mother. She now has a " No Solicitors" sign at her front door.

Unknown said...

They got my 70 year old mother, she now has a "No Solicitors" sign at her front door.

California Natives said...

I was contacted by a CTA supplier last year and the sales tactics were somewhat sleazy. They also implied that they were connected to PG&E. I signed up before I totally understood how the system worked. However... my gas bills this year were a great deal lower while I was on a fixed rate arrangement with the company so i ended up not regretting what I had done. Now that the fixed rate deal is over, I'm canceling my contract and I'm going to look for another CTA.

Calladus said...

California Natives, I'm very glad it worked out for you. I'm also glad that when your contract ran out, you did your research to find a different CTA.

Calladus said...

Patrick, the 50% of what PG&E Suppliers said that IS true is that I'm speaking my mind.

The rest of what he said is obfuscation, intellectually dishonest, or a flat out lie. For example, I never said a thing about needing a credit card - so where he gets that lie, I have no idea.

starlitdragon1 said...

I currently work for You Spruce we have fired multiple reps that have been saying they are with PG&E.
We are actually trained to state we are blue spruce a certified supplier through PG&E and the core aggregation service, we are also trained to explain deregulation and the difference between cta's and distributors such as PG&e.
I'm sorry that you had such a bad experience but, even if it's not blue spruce I would suggest you not allow that to ruin all cta's for you they often have better rates than distributors, just make sure to be sufficiently skeptical and read the fine print if they need a contract(which blue spruce doesn't) and also that you know exactly what they are signig you can up for.

Calladus said...

starlitdragon1, the people who showed up on my doorstep presented themselves as being with PG&E. One was so emphatic about it that my wife immediately thought it was some sort of emergency, and brought him around the house to my woodshop to meet me.

What I need is a phone number I can call when one of these "sales reps" arrive on my porch, someone who I can call to complain.

That's something I like about PG&E. They are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. If PG&E does something that I don't agree with, I can open a complaint with the CPUC. It will be investigated, and if in the wrong PG&E will be corrected and the dispute resolved.

CTA's are not regulated. Sure, I could complain to Blue Spruce about the actions of your sales reps, but there is no guarantee that anyone will actually be punished.

In fact, I can't verify your claim that You Spruce has fired anyone. What sort of records do you keep for that?

Again, I'm not saying that CTAs are a bad thing in themselves. But like any other product, it is "buyer beware".

Unknown said...

They tried to get me the other day, said that he was a rep for PG&E and that they were over charging me and they could get my bill lowered and a refund for the overage, he had a clipboard and stated several times that he was there on behalf of PG&E, he asked to see my bill, i noticed the badge he was wearing said blue spruce and he was not with PG&E, i quickly realized he wad trying to get me to switch providers and told him to get lost.

Calladus said...

I would not nearly be as pissed off at these people if they just told the truth. Come to my door and tell me that you are a seller who can provide a service that saves me money, and at least I'll give you the chance to make your elevator pitch.

But they lie. "Hi! I'm with PG&E" or "Hi! I'm from PG&E" or even "Hi! I'm working with PG&E" are all lies.

The more truthful introduction would be, "Hi! Due to state law, PG&E is forced to allow other energy providers to use PG&E infrastructure. I'm work for a secondary energy provider, and I think I can undercut PG&E and save you money on your gas bill!"

That would get my attention!

But I won't do business with liars.

Unknown said...

Blue Spruce told me it cost $50 to switch back

Kalos said...

The reason why you will be paying $50 if not already is because your cancelling the 12 month contract. Every ETF - Early Termination Fee for every CTA Gas Supplier is $50, with a 12 month contract.

Depending on the area code you live in, you can be offered a different gas supplier however you'll still be charged for delivery by PG&E.

PG&E does offer its own Gas & Electricity. And to compensate California mandated that by the end of this year 50,000 customers are to be enrolled in the Core-Gas Aggregation Program, because rates are going up due to more California residents switching over to Solar. This program allows a California Resident to receive a different gas supplier - But still be charged for delivery by PG&E as both Gas and Delivery comes from Utah. The mere difference now is that you'll simply have two separate charges but within one Single Bill. With the gas charge lower on one side, and the regular charge for Delivery of the gas (supplier you've chosen) on the other side.

Depending on where you live, you can really save up money. It's just the mere fact that you must research it, or when a rep from a CTA Energy company shows up, that they are very thorough and make sure that the customer is comprehending everything. CTA Energy Suppliers are Contractors with PG&E, they are Not With PG&E.

Hope this has helped :)

Calladus said...

It doesn't matter how much money I might save (if any). If the representative has to lie to get me to join, then I don't want him on my porch.

It happened again, just last week. The guy who showed up on my porch that evening said he was "with PG&E" and that he wanted to "check my PG&E bill to make sure I'm getting the best rate."

What. The. Hell.

I told him, "No, you're with the Core Gas program, and are a competitor to PG&E. I'm not interested." And I started to shut the door.

The asshole - and he WAS an asshole - raised his voice and said, "We're working with PG&E! Don't you want to save money?"

I replied, "Goodbye." And I shut the door.

He yelled, from my front porch, "We really are working together with PG&E! You're losing money!"

I opened the door again and told him to "GET the FUCK OFF MY PORCH!" And shut it again.

I don't care. If you have to lie to get the sale, you're an asshole, and don't deserve the business.

Kalos said...

I would have preferred that you have saved money. He is right but to an extent - I work for Continuum Energy, and when I go to a family member or friends house I always make sure that they are fully comprehending what is to occur in their next bill cycle.

Even if at the end they say to me, "so basically you're saying that were getting more discount apart from the Care Program" The thing is there isn't a need to lie, but these energy suppliers do work with PG&E but it doesn't mean that they are apart of PG&E as a whole. Like I mentioned earlier California has mandated this Core-Gas Program because they want to deregulate this appearance of Monopoly that is emiting from PG&, helping residents in the long run to not pay as much for their gas bill. I would never lie to customers and that just may be me. But you are right as well Mr. Calladus to the extent of being able to deny discount for your bill.

Even so, it comes down to personal preference. And it may seem that if you'd wish to not receive any discount or the best deal, and even the best whilst cheapest rate for your bill - that too is acceptable because it rides solemnly on your choice.

:) Futhermore I'd wish you the best, and if by luck I would to encounter you, I would gladly come to you like I do to everyone - cheerful and happy because i would be able to help save you money.


Calladus said...

Of course, what it comes down to is if the seller must lie in order to make their sale, then they are representing a company that I don't want to do business with.

Every single Core Gas representative that has arrived at my door has represented themselves as part of PG&E. They carry a pad with a PG&E letterhead on it, and they introduce themselves as, "Hi, I'm with PG&E".

I don't care how sunny such a person is, I don't care if they can save me money. Liars should be shown the door, and that's what I do.

Maybe you need to rethink being a part of an industry that trains employees to lie to customers?

Unknown said...

I've been working in deregulated markets for 5 years primarily in the field overseeing training and managing multiple teams. If you know your product and you communicate the benefits honestly no matter what anyone who's listening will at least consider it. The problem is 2 sided #1 CTA reps can be deceptive. #2 Consumers THINK or assumme they know how deregulation works when they actually don't have any idea. It's unfortunate to hear about consumers being deceived at the same time it's unfortunate that those same deceptive reps make the honest, genuinely helpful CTA agents providing the courtesy to inform the community of thier right to choose a cheaper gas supplier typically pay the consequences for CTAs that typically life or use aggressive tactics and are summary terminated for it.

Calladus said...

What I find interesting is that like any slick salesman, agents are ready to talk about the benefits of purchasing from an unregulated marketplace, but none of them are willing to say a darned thing about the possible disadvantages of doing so.

First, the fact that this is "unregulated" is a disadvantage to the consumer. A CTA doesn't have to answer to the California Public Utilities Commission. Which means that if I, as a customer, have a problem with my CTA, then it is up to me to solve that problem in small claims court.

CTAs can be "fly by night" businesses. Some are very young and have no track record. Some may be financially unsound, and may actually be on their way toward going out of business. This is like the early days of the Internet, when multiple service providers were being bought out by larger providers, or going out of business. You could find your contract with company "A" suddenly purchased by company "B".

And since the people who show up on your porch are INVARIABLY taught high pressure sales tactics, you are pressured to make a decision while knowing very little about the company.

Since I've written this blog posting, I've had at least TEN different CTA sales reps on my front porch. As of this writing, only ONE has identified himself as working as a CTA, and offered a website for me to get more details.

All of the rest of them start their spiel the same way. "Hi, I'm with PG&E, and I'm here to examine your bill to see if you're getting all the savings you are entitled to."

Which is, of course a lie. And any lie gets them shouted off my porch.

Daniel, perhaps you should fire all your agents?

Unknown said...

I don't deal with any door to door sales people. Who does that anymore? Door to door sales people are equal to scam in my world.

Unknown said...

In this day and age scamming and fraud, who in their right mind would engage a door to door sales person and not tell them to get lost the moment they rang your bell?

CenCal Resident said...

Here is a quick recount of my experience with the door to door sales person and Blue Spruce. First, I appreciate this forum because with this kind of hot button issue it seems like there would be more on the web about this than there is.

Now to start with the sales person, he led me to believe he was with PG&E. I normally don't deal with door to door people, but he was charismatic and I wanted to see what he had to say about saving money. Long story short, it is what I consider a shady sale. I am a salesperson and the general tactics are shady (he also tried to sell me solar at the end). I did end up switching based on his promise of $.68 per therm flat fee. The only thing I was left with was a blue spruce flyer w/ his number and 'plan' details scribbled on it. The one thing that wasn't explained is that PG&E still charges you per therm to deliver the gas (granted there is a "gas procurement credit" from blue spruce). The one thing that I don't like about this whole thing is I can't understand what is going on and it doesn't seem that anyone can really explain it to me. I would say I did get a customer service rep on the phone easily and she did her best to help me.

In hindsight, I wish I would have just stuck with PG&E even if I do pay a little bit more. Which leads me to my final word is that I have 2 months of billing with Blue Spruce and from what I can calculate (total gas bill divided by therms used) I am paying more now with Blue Spruce than with PG&E. I'm going to give it one more month and see if I see a savings. If i don't then pay the $50 to switch back and chalk it up as a loss and move on.

Calladus said...

So apparently this post has been linked
to by AllGov California
, and apparently Blue Spruce - the trade name in California for United Energy Trading (UET) - is suing PG&E in U.S. District Court.

What I get from this is that UET basically uses PG&E's infrastructure to move gas, AND they've hired PG&E to do their billing. UET is a marketing and logistics company that buys, stores and sells natural gas, and manages the way it is transported. It also offers management services for private and municipal operations.

In other words, they are very good at being a "middleman". If your gas line breaks, they get a contractor to fix it for you. Presumably, they hire PG&E.

And if you contract through them, you must pay a penalty to get clear of that contract. It is as if they are the "Cable Television Company" of the gas world.

According to one story linked from the  AllGov article, there have been
incidents of fraud to get home owners to sign their contracts


Shedlock recalls two men knocking on doors here in Fairfield. They told him they could reduce his gas bill too. Shedlock said no thanks, but it didn't end there.

"They said will you at least sign the clipboard so we can show our boss that we talked to you? And I said sure," Shedlock said.

He was shocked the following month when a company called Spark Energy of Texas suddenly appeared on his gas bill. Spark charged him $34 for gas. PG&E charged $26 to deliver it. He claims he was misled into signing up.

- Unquote

It is difficult to think of a more slimy way to operate a business.

Maurice H Bank said...

I remember Spark Energy because I was led to believe- by some young people visiting our complex-that my rates would be lower if I signed with them. An idiot I was because after signing the yellow sheet i read that there would be an additional 20% charge making my savings not really a savings after all. I immediately called PG&E and told them. They were able to get Spark to cancel it without any penalty. The motto of this story is never sign anything, and don't believe everything these salesman tell you. Remember, they are in Sales!

Unknown said...

I realize that comments on this post stopped last August, but I hope that you are still monitoring it.

I have been approached (by phone) by the Community Gas Center, based in San Francisco, according to their website. They are not a CTA, but apparently a (non-profit?) broker to help small businesses select a CTA, again to reduce monthly natural gas costs. I am working for a church, definitely a non-profit, and would love lower energy costs but am suspicious.

Has anyone who monitors this blog run across this group or know anything about the Community Gas Center?