Direct Energy - DirectEnergy CSR Fired for Helping Over-Billed Customers
I have knowledge about the over-billing of electricity customers in Texas, and I believe that the problem is related to "smart meters," the relatively new digital meters that can be read and operated remotely by utility companies.
I worked for APAC Customer Services, Inc., 1650 S. Research Loop, Suite 160, Tucson, AZ 85710, which is a call center that contracts to provide customer service for Texas customers of Direct Energy and its subsidiaries, such as CPL, WTU, First Choice Power, and the pre-paid versions of Direct Energy Power to Go and CPL Power to Go (there are other Direct Energy companies being served, such as New Leaf, etc., but I did not serve those customers).
I began employment with APAC in November of 2011, and APAC later started providing customer service for Direct Energy companies around May of 2012, and I started working as a customer service representative in that capacity a couple of months or more later, and I worked in that capacity for over six months.
Over time, I observed that there is a pattern of when Texas electricity customers get overcharged. Many of the customers call in because they have gotten an extremely high bill, often double, triple or even higher than the bill that they would have normally received for that time of year. Some of the customers knew that their bill was wrong because they had been out of town during a significant part of the reading period, or because they they knew that they had not used significantly more electricity than usual.
These overcharges occurred during periods of high usage by the general public due to weather. Although I am not an electrical or electronics engineer, I began to suspect that the smart meters were allowing too much electricity to pass through them when there is more current in the lines to meet the higher demand during extreme weather. The extra demand from all the meters around an affected meter requires more current in the lines, and that or a related condition is apparently causing more electricity to be forced through the affected meters. (For meters connected in a parallel circuit, the voltage supplied to each meter would be the same, and the current through each meter would only be what's drawn at each particular meter, and so there should be no problem unless the voltage is being increased during high usage or because the increased overall current in the lines is somehow affecting the smart meters.) Even though a smart meter may or could pass a test individually, I don't know if they have been tested hundreds or more at a time in a real network.
During the record heat in Texas last summer in 2012, and during the cold period in Texas starting around late December of 2012, a very large number of customers called in about their extremely high bills. In particular, this occurred quite frequently with the pre-paid customers starting late last December because they saw their usage and charges on a daily basis within a day or two of use. I saw daily charges as high as $26 a day (one account), or as high as $20 a day (several accounts) in what were usually small apartments where the normal charges for most customers were around or below $5 a day. Again, many of these customers were not home during the holidays, and they called because they knew that the charges were wrong.
I would explain to both pre-paid and monthly post-pay customers that I only have two tools in my tool box: I could either submit a request for (1) a meter re-read, or (2) a meter test. I would also explain that Direct Energy itself and its subsidiaries do not have the right or power to re-read or test a meter since all the lines and meters are wholly owned by a separate company in the customer's area (whether that company is Oncor, Centerpoint, American Electric Power, Texas New Mexico Power, or Sharyland). I also explained that switching to a new “retail electric provider” (REP) instead of Direct Energy or its subsidiaries would not cure the problem since the readings would still come from the same company in the customer's area that separately owns the lines and meters. (The lines-and-meters company for a given area receives a small portion of the amount charged by any REP in the same area).
I would also point out to affected customers that requesting a meter re-read or a meter test may be like asking the fox in the henhouse to count the chickens, for it may not be in the lines-and-meters company's interest to admit that there is a problem with their readings or their meters. An honest business that cares about its reputation would see it otherwise, but the more I saw this problem occur, the more I suspected that outside intervention is necessary, and I shared the crux of that opinion with affected customers.
As to a meter re-read, I eventually learned and would explain that the lines-and-meters company cannot actually re-read the meter as it was, for those numbers have since changed, and they can only 're-read' what the meter shows later when they read it again. I would explain, and essentially guess, that the lines-and-meters company could make a change in the bill if there was some gross disparity between the daily average in the full reading period as compared to the daily average from the end of that last reading up to a later reading that is very close in time. I sometimes pointed out, however, that there is no guideline for when and how the lines-and-meters company would adjust the bill (no one ever told me such a guideline to share with the customers). And, if the current reading and charges were already grossly disparate, it's hard to imagine how much more disparity would need to be shown.
Another frustrating fact is that the orders for a meter re-read that have already been submitted often get a later status update of “closed and success” without giving any explanation or price change, and I often shared that fact with affected customers. That subject came up at a meeting at APAC where I worked, and I recollect it being said that the bulk of these meter re-read orders are simply being updated to “closed and success” rather than being passed on to the lines-and-meters company because there are just too many of such requests being submitted. My memory does not extend beyond the sight of the area I was in, the standing female and her voice, and her stated position as being on the correspondence team, but I believe that this is what I heard, which means that most of the customers who request a meter re-read are being ignored. I may have some of the facts wrong, but the great bulk of the meter re-read requests that have had their status updated to “closed and success” without so much as stating the new meter reading number is a fact that speaks for itself.
Between the choices of a meter re-read or a meter test, I would point out to customers that the lines-and-meters company will charge a fee for either choice if that company decides that the reading or the meter was okay, but that the fee for the meter test would be much more expensive and might even be a source of profit for the lines-and-meters company. As such, most customers chose to risk being charged for the meter re-read, but not the meter test.
The affected customers would often ask me what else they could do, and I would explain that the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) still has regulatory power over both Direct Energy and its subsidiaries and over the lines-and-meters companies, and I would suggest to affected customers that they complain to the PUCT, and I would give them the phone number for the PUCT, and I would transfer the customer to the PUCT if the customer desired.
In fact, in response to the surge of calls complaining about high billing starting in late December of 2012, I advised at least 30 affected customers to complain to the PUCT. However, all the calls at APAC where I worked are recorded and are sometimes reviewed and graded for quality. So, sometime in January 2013, I was given a written first-and-final warning by APAC management to stop suggesting to customers that they could complain to the PUCT. (And, some weeks later, the phone number for the PUCT was removed from our contacts list.)
Conscience would not let me obey that order, and I continued to suggest to affected customers that they could complain to the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT). As a result, I was fired on 3-19-2013 for disobeying the order to not tell customers that they could complain to the PUCT about erroneously high electricity bills.
I was willing to be fired for caring about those customers and telling them the truth, and so I feel a responsibility to now find and share this information with anyone who can help solve the problem. Please let me know if you need an affidavit or any other information from me.
Very Respectfully, Ray Donald Pratt