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!