Talk about a mess.
Chris Jurey lives in Wadsworth Township in Medina County.
Luan Haas and her family lived for about nine months in 2011 and 2012 in an 1800s farmhouse just over the Akron border in Copley Township that she rented from Ron Miller.
Jurey doesn’t know Haas or Miller and would have no reason to be connected to them or the house, which is 17 miles away from him.
But a series of mistakes by natural-gas marketer Direct Energy somehow linked the accounts and properties together — and in the process switched their billings to higher rates.
The good news is that at least one of the parties — Jurey — was compensated for more than he lost financially by Direct Energy, owned by a company in the United Kingdom with North American headquarters in Houston.
However, during the course of this investigation, another problem was discovered: its possible that up to 207 customers could have been improperly enrolled into the Summit County aggregation. Once the exact number is determined, the customers will be contacted to fix the situation, said spokeswoman Bethany Ruhe.
It has taken more than a month of work to find out what happened with the Jurey/Haas/Miller case, and we’re still waiting on final explanations and resolutions.
I felt like a modern-day Columbo in helping to unravel this mystery that started with Jurey contacting me in December. He has lived in his Medina County home for more than 25 years, having built it with energy-efficient appliances, heavily insulated walls and triple-paned windows to withstand harsh winters on a wooded lot.
Up until late 2011, Jurey heated his home using a free gas well on his land and a dual-natural gas and electric furnace. When the free gas well dried up, he paid $12,000 to Dominion to extend gas lines to his home — and said that process had its share of problems.
Last January, Direct Energy said a coding error was to blame for 17,000 letters sent about a Summit County aggregation, or natural-gas-buying group, to the wrong customers. The aggregation, which had a fixed rate of $5.39 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) with no cancellation fee through January 2014, was intended for 3,400 township residents in Summit County only. But the erroneous letters went to others in Summit County and in some cases, Medina County.
Direct Energy then had problems with an overflowing post-office box for opt-out forms for that program.
Jurey didn’t pay much attention to that story since he lived in Medina County, but received a letter in February saying he would be switched to the Summit County aggregation unless he opted out. Jurey was on the Standard Choice Offer (SCO), the monthly variable with an assigned provider by Dominion that is based on a state-approved formula added to already low wholesale natural gas prices. Jurey knew that I was in favor of consumers taking the SCO, which in December 2011 and January 2012 was at $4.08/mcf and $3.68/mcf. (In the following months, it dropped to record lows in April and May of $2.79 and $2.64 before coming up slightly. It’s currently at $3.95/mcf for January and $3.83/mcf as of Feb. 14.)
Jurey told Direct Energy he didn’t live in Summit County and didn’t want to be switched. In March, Jurey received a confirmation letter from Dominion saying he was being switched to the Direct Energy-Summit rate. He called again to say he didn’t want to be on that rate and assumed it was done.
Fast-forward to November. Jurey admits that he didn’t pay close attention to his bill and didn’t realize he had indeed been switched to the Direct Energy-Summit rate.
Jurey is now in the process of being switched back to the SCO. He was given no answers about what happened and was told he was not eligible for any reimbursements. In late December, Jurey contacted me.
Initially, there were differing stories on what happened. In one case, Direct Energy said Jurey had two accounts listed at two different addresses, but for privacy reasons they could not tell me the second address.
In another scenario, they said Dominion had two different service addresses sharing the same account number. Dominion has since determined that wasn’t the case. Dominion says it was Direct Energy’s responsibility to confirm all accounts listed in potential aggregation groups are in the right areas.
Jurey was eventually told by Direct Energy that his account had somehow been linked with an address off White Pond Drive. That’s the house that Haas rented from October 2011 through July 2012 from homeowner Ron Miller of Akron.
After I asked Direct Energy questions and alerted the PUCO and Dominion to the complicated issue about a week and a half ago, Direct Energy said they would reimburse Jurey for the difference in what his bill should have been.
Last Saturday, Jurey received $250, what Direct Energy said was the maximum amount he might have been overcharged between the SCO and the aggregation rate.
I did the math for Jurey’s bills, and because he had such a well-insulated house and uses less gas than the average home, he actually only overpaid $75.21 over a nine-month period. But it was the right thing to do to give him some money for his annoyance, in my opinion.
Jurey said he understands that mistakes happen, but as a businessman, he doesn’t understand why his problem wasn’t fixed the first time he called.
As for the reimbursement check, “I’d rather not had to mess with it. It makes it right. But someone who wasn’t as diligent as I wouldn’t have noticed” the bills being wrong, he said.
It remains unclear why another residence’s account with no connection would be connected to Jurey and be switched and whether there are any reimbursements due the Haas family, who rented the house, and the Millers, who own the home and have paid the bills since the house has not been re-rented.
PUCO Investigation and Audit Division Chief Lisa Colosimo wants to know all of the details to make sure no rules were broken and that such an incident couldn’t happen again. Colosimo said there are occasions when an account is mistakenly switched by a marketer, but this situation is unique in involving two different accounts.
Ruhe said the company was “still in the process of a very complex investigation into this matter.”
“We are absolutely committed to helping our customers resolve this in a positive manner and getting the facts straight,” Ruhe said.
While Ruhe acknowledged that the Direct Energy-Summit aggregation program has had its share of problems, it is not a trend, she said. (Direct Energy last week had an unrelated problem it corrected after 443 Tallmadge customers who wanted to switch to the Tallmadge aggregation were not properly switched.)
‘A difficult journey’
Ruhe noted that Direct Energy has more than 6 million customers.
+“It’s been a difficult journey that I feel that we’ve learned a lot from.”
Haas and Miller were unaware of anything until I contacted them.
After Haas sent me copies of her bills, I discovered she had been with the SCO and in April, about two months after Jurey first got his letter in February and the typical turnaround for a switch, her account was also switched to Direct Energy-Summit’s aggregation rate. She should have paid $2.79/mcf for the SCO in April and paid $5.39/mcf. She continued on the Summit rate until her family moved out of the rental in July.
While there was some confusion at first since the house is on the border of Akron and Copley Township, the house is in the township, which means it would have been automatically included in the Summit County aggregation and Haas should have received a letter informing her of that.
Haas said she does not recall ever getting a letter, but can’t say for sure whether she missed it. With all of the problems with Direct’s Summit letters, frankly, it’s anyone’s guess whether a letter went out or was missed.
In my opinion, Direct Energy should make Haas whole by reimbursing her at least $84.70 — the amount I’ve calculated she overpaid in the four months she was switched.
Miller’s account might not have been overcharged and according to a Dominion official, when a new account is established (in this case, when the Haas family moved out), it would be on the Standard Service Offer (SSO) and SCO, which are the same rates. I’m still awaiting confirmations on that.
In the meantime, Haas said it’d certainly be nice to get a reimbursement check from Direct Energy. Last July, they bought a home in Copley.
“We’re redoing our kitchen, so every little bit will help,” she said.