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Pennsylvania pursuing 5 energy companies that jacked up consumers' electric rates

| Friday, June 20, 2014, 1:21 p.m.

A Fayette County couple still paying an out-of-state electric company that jacked up rates during the winter said they're glad the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office is seeking to revoke the company's license.

“I think that something should happen with them,” Wendy Groh of Vanderbilt said of IDT Energy Inc., which sent a $939.48 bill in February.

She and her husband, Jeff, said the company's telemarketers hounded them into switching from West Penn Power and promised they would save money. The Grohs were paying West Penn Power less than $300 a month.

They're back with West Penn Power but make $30 monthly payments to cover what they owe IDT Energy.

“How did they save us money?” Wendy Groh asked.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced on Friday that the Bureau of Consumer Protection in her office is joining the Office of Consumer Advocate in filing complaints with the Public Utility Commission against IDT Energy, Respond Power LLC, Hiko Energy LLC, Blue Pilot Energy LLC and Energy Service Providers Inc., which does business as Pennsylvania Gas & Electric.

“We received thousands of complaints from consumers who could not pay their excessively high bills,” Kane said. “Those consumers were deceived, and we are taking those who participated in the deception to task.”

If the PUC revokes the companies' licenses, they won't be able to operate in Pennsylvania.

IDT Energy released a statement saying it will respond to the complaint on reviewing it.

“We take all complaints very seriously, whether directly from consumers or from appropriate authorities,” the company said.

IDT Energy in March said it paid about $2 million in “goodwill rebates” to bring customers' bills closer to rates they paid before cold weather drove up prices.

Representatives for the other companies could not be reached for comment.

Between late February and mid-June, Kane's office got 42,603 telephone calls and 7,551 consumer complaints about electricity bill spikes. During that period, the Office of Consumer Advocate handled more than 3,000 contacts from consumers.

The complaints accuse the suppliers of multiple violations of the PUC's orders and regulations, the Public Utility Code, the Consumer Protection Law and the Telemarketer Registration Act.

The joint complaints claim the suppliers lured consumers by promising low or “competitive” rates if they switched companies. Some customers were switched without their consent — a practice called slamming — and the contracts the companies used don't comply with state law, the complaints say.

Jeff Groh said he filed a complaint with the commission when IDT Energy hiked his bill, but an agency spokesman advised him that IDT Energy's actions were legal.

“I'm glad that they're taking action against all of them,” he said.

If companies want to operate in the state, they should play by the rules, Groh believes.

A bricklayer who makes most of his money during the building season, Groh said that paying the bill has been a struggle, even when IDT Energy gave him a check for almost $600 to pay part of what they owe.

In his business, if the weather is too cold or wet, he can't work.

“So far this year, I've only got one 40-hour paycheck because of the weather,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Contact him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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