Skokie mom says gas bill tripled after signing with 3rd party energy company

SKOKIE, Ill. (WLS) -- How about cutting your energy bill in half? It sounds like a great idea. But a woman in Skokie says she ended up paying triple after signing on with a third party gas company.

Many other people in the area have had the same problem. The Better Business Bureau says it's received 625 similar complaints since January.

Tamekia Hampton is a dedicated mom, always making sure her family has everything they need.

"Because of the two kids we have, we wanted to make sure the house stayed warm for them," Hampton said.

So when a third party energy company knocked on her door promising to reduce her Nicor Gas bill, Hampton says she was all in.

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"You hear all of the horror stories in Chicago that your heat bill goes up to 100, 200 dollars during the winter," Hampton said.

She says the company promised to keep her gas bill low at a fixed rate every month, which she was told would always be lower than her current gas company's price.

But several months later, when Hampton eventually checked her account, she says she learned the third party company was charging her double, sometimes triple the amount of her original gas bill.

Last October she paid them $104, when Nicor was only charging $38.

"What are you doing with my money? Are you just pocketing my money at the end of the month," Hampton said.

"They go door to door guaranteeing that they can save you money," said Steve Bernas with the Better Business Bureau.

Bernas says smaller energy companies have been out in droves, convincing consumers that they can reduce their energy costs through "budget billing."

And as it gets colder, more people may be inclined to sign up fast without doing their homework.

"They tell you all this information and then you read what you received, that this reduced rate is only for the first three months and then the next three months it's going to be normal or double what you're paying now," Bernas said.

"I was extremely upset. I felt like I should have been smarter than that," Hampton said.

It's a lesson learned for this busy mom, who was just hoping to save some money.

"I let my guard down and I will know never to do that again," she said.

Hampton says that third party company eventually let her out of her contract and she's now working directly with Nicor Gas. She said her bills are now back to where they should be.

The BBB said there are some smaller energy companies out there with good intentions, but regardless of who you do business with, you've got to do your research before handing over any money and of course read the fine print.

Nicor Gas released a statement saying: "We are committed to delivering an exceptional customer experience and hold ourselves accountable to our customers first and foremost. That starts with listening to - and learning from - our customers so we fully understand how to best meet their needs and then providing the tools, services and solutions that bring value to their daily lives.

"One of those options is Customer Select, a voluntary, free program offered by Nicor Gas that allows customers to choose their natural gas supplier. Depending on the supplier, some offer contracts that lock in natural gas prices for a fixed period of time and others that compete with Nicor Gas' monthly gas supply charge.

"Since natural gas is a commodity, its price varies daily based on the effects of weather, supply and demand. The cost of natural gas supply currently makes up about 50 to 60 percent of a customer's annual gas bill; the rest is delivery charges and taxes. Nicor Gas' cost for natural gas changes every month, and all customers are charged the same price per therm. Nicor Gas files a Gas Supply Charge each month with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), which regulates all Illinois utilities.

"Third party natural gas suppliers are certified by the ICC and must meet certain business and credit standards. This includes a code of conduct related to telemarketing practices, handling of customer complaints, maintaining adequate gas supply and pipeline capacity and obeying truth-in-advertising laws. Prices charged by the participating suppliers, as well as the terms and conditions of their contracts, are not regulated by the ICC. Because of this, suppliers are able to create a variety of pricing offers.

"Currently, about 12 percent of Nicor Gas residential customers are enrolled in Customer Select.

"As the demand for energy continues to grow, our customers deserve natural gas and electricity they can depend on at a cost they can afford. That's why Nicor Gas provides efficient and effective energy solutions to power our communities' future. As you may already know, priority enrollment for LIHEAP began this week, and there are several more energy assistance program available to Nicor Gas customers, including the Budget Plan:

Thank you again for reaching out. I'm sure in your reporting you have come across the Home Energy Affordability and Transparency (HEAT) Act, which takes effect January 2020. The full text can be found here:"

The Citizens Utility Board also released a statement saying, "We get multiple complaints a week about alternative natural gas suppliers-over the past year we've averaged roughly a complaint every other day. Inquiries about alternative electric and gas suppliers are among our top complaints.

"We warn all consumers that this is a buyer beware market. We've seen so many sad stories of working families and seniors on fixed incomes getting ripped off by alternative suppliers-people paying double, triple, even worse-it makes us sick and angry. We stress to everyone that in this market the regulated utility is your best bet. We repeat: Be warned, it's likely that you will lose money with an alternative supplier."

If you need something investigated, call the I-Team Consumer Alert Tip Line at 312-750-7847.
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