Slammed by electric company? How you can fight back

Peter Iannelli, of South Philly, was slammed by electric companies three times in 18 months, meaning his electricity provider was switched from Peco to another company without his knowledge.

PETER IANNELLI just wants it to stop.

Three times in the last 18 months, he has been switched from his electricity provider, Peco, to another company without his knowledge or consent.

That is a scam, and the scam has a name: Slamming.

A retired concrete worker who's been living in the same South Philly rowhouse for more than 50 years, Iannelli also wants one other thing: He wants everybody else to get wise.

The first time, and each time after, he learned he had been slammed when he got a letter from Peco informing him of the change.

Since he didn't want the change, he called Peco to complain. With apologies, Peco said it was (pardon the pun) powerless to help.

"They're not allowed to do anything about it by statute," I am told by legendary consumer advocate Lance Haver, whose current title is director of civic engagement for City Council.

The power company doesn't need a signed agreement, Haver says. It can do business online or over the phone, but it has to record the conversation agreeing to the switch.

Funny thing about that.

Iannelli is a pretty sharp 72, and when he got slammed by a company called Residents Energy, he called and asked how that happened. His wife, Annell, authorized it, they said.

"Let me hear the recording," said Iannelli. The voice had a Spanish accent, he told me. His wife, who was in their kitchen, where we talked, has no accent at all.

I contacted Residents, which said that although it couldn't explain how it happened, "we took swift action by returning the customer to the default provider" and firing the responsible sales rep.

When he got switched to another company, they said they had his signature. When he asked them to provide it, they sent him a blank sheet of paper with his name typed in at the top.

It's like some kind of a joke.

Iannelli knew to report it to the Public Utility Commission. The PUC is investigating.

I asked PUC how many slamming complaints it got, and was told there were 2,173 in 2014, the last full year recorded.

Spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen told me the defense against slamming starts with watching your bill closely for a charge - or a company - that seems wrong. Ask the utility to remove you from the Eligible Customer List and add your name to state and federal Do Not Call lists. But it is not foolproof.

If you see a switch, call the preferred provider. Then call the company that slammed you, and demand to be returned to your original provider. Afterward, call the PUC at its toll-free hotline: 800-692-7380. The PUC will investigate and can fine the company if it finds improprieties.

Iannelli did all that, all three times. You can see what a pain in the butt it is.

"The ease at which they can do it, they just pick a name - 'Mr. Goldberg' - he's going to go with us," groused Iannelli.

There's another thing. Even though he watches his bills like a hawk and strikes like a snake when he's been slammed, Iannelli has to pay the slamming company for the power it delivered, even though he didn't ask for it and even if it might be a higher rate than Peco's.

He also gets stuck with an additional small service charge - for a service he didn't want. That might be only $3 or $4, but "you times that by thousands of people this happens to, and it's real money," he said.

Real money siphoned by companies into their coffers. It doesn't seem the fines are high enough to stop them.

One thing the state ought to require is a signed agreement before any change is made.

Another would be to start jailing executives of the slamming companies. I bet that would give Iannelli a more peaceful retirement.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky