C-U residents complain about aggressive solicitation by alternative energy providers

Jason Swanson started to realize the woman at his door was not who she said she was. Although Swanson felt something wasn’t right, he still handed her the electric bill sitting on his kitchen table that had been delivered the day before.

This woman, an employee for Liberty Power, claimed that she represented Swanson’s electric company. 

Before Champaign and Urbana aggregated their electricity in 2012, Ameren was the default electric company for the community. But in 2012, the governments took bids from electric suppliers for the cheapest rates: Champaign chose Integrys Energy Services and Urbana chose Homefield Energy. Ameren now handles the transmission and distribution of electricity. Champaign Deputy Mayor Tom Bruno said the plan has saved the community more than a million dollars.

Recently, other electric companies have been trying to pry residents from their cheaper contracts. 

On Jan. 29, Roland Realty sent an email to its residents explaining that Clearview Energy Partners, LLC had been soliciting its tenants in the evenings. 

For Swanson, he was confronted with aggressive tactics about two weeks ago. As a recent doctoral graduate who is working toward becoming a tenured track professor, Swanson has been spending his time since graduation trying to publish as many articles as he can.

So around 11 a.m., dressed in a hoodie and sweatpants, Swanson was sitting on his couch “cranking out an article.”

Then came an interruption.

“So there’s this knock on the door and there’s a woman, maybe about 25 years old,” Swanson said. “It was one of those frigid, frigid cold mornings and I invited her inside because I didn’t want her standing out there.”

Once Swanson scooped up the bill that had been sitting on his kitchen table and handed it to the employee, she opened it and began taking down information. 

“She was on-the-clock,” he said. “It was as if she was trying to defuse a bomb or something. She was putting info into her iPad at an unbelievable rate.”

After introducing herself as a representative of the city’s main electric provider to Swanson, the lanyard that looped down to the woman’s bellybutton suggested otherwise. On it read: Liberty Power.

“Oh I see you’re with Liberty Power — are you not with Ameren?” Swanson recalls asking.

“Well, Liberty Power and Ameren are working together,” Swanson said the woman replied.

Swanson thought to himself: “OK … That’s another red flag. Well, what the hell is going on here? This is getting really, really weird.”

The woman then told Swanson that Liberty Power is the company that the community chose when it aggregated its electricity.  All he needed was to sign one of her forms and his bills would be lowered. This is not true because Ameren has lower rates than Liberty Power.

“Ultimately, the awful thing about it is that, had I not looked at the rate right there, my rate would have doubled,” he said. “In my case, I had about a $100 electric bill last month because it’s been so brutally cold.  Going to $200 would be crippling because I’m unemployed.”

After his skepticism and denials led to a new sales pitch, Swanson knew what he had to do to make sure he would not have an account with Liberty Power.

“I had to get more aggressive than her,” he said. “I had to take it up a notch to really be the alpha in that exchange for her to delete their information on her iPad. If someone hadn’t got that aggressive, I think she would have kept the information.”

On Feb. 16, a notice was posted on the City of Champaign’s Municipal Electric Aggregation website, warning Champaign residents of Liberty Power’s solicitations. 

“Liberty Power is NOT the City’s vendor for the Municipal Electric Aggregation program,” the notice read. “Citizens should NEVER compromise their security by providing Ameren account information to anyone.” 

The notice added that complaints about solicitation can be filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission Consumer Services Division or with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. It has since been removed from the city’s website. 

Nichole Best, sophomore in FAA, dealt with a similar iPad-carrying, fast-talking woman about two weeks ago. But Best did not think the Liberty Power employee should have even been allowed at her door.

“I was extremely confused to how it was protocol for her to get into a locked apartment building,” she said.

Best overheard the Liberty Power employee making her pitch to the neighbors. When she made her way to Best’s door, the foreign accent prevented her from understanding the employee at first.

“When I asked her to repeat what she said, she got really annoyed,” Best said.

And like Swanson, she handed her bill to the woman. But then, as the employee began to enter information into her iPad, Best told the woman that she did not have her consent.

“She told me she would delete my information, but I didn’t see her delete any of my information,” Best said.

Both Swanson and Best were able to call Liberty Power and ensure that the company did not have their information on record.

Liberty Power Director Tim LoCascio responded to the recent complaints via email:

“Liberty Power takes our reputation very seriously and we strive for zero complaints.  We are proud of our A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau which is a result of a very robust quality assurance program that meets and in many respects exceeds the customer protection rules established by the Illinois Commerce Commission (“ICC”) … Liberty Power apologizes to anyone who had anything less than an exceptional customer experience.”

However, Best and Swanson are skeptical.

“I think their business is extraordinarily deceptive,” Swanson said. “It’s really sad to catch people off guard and get them to sign something that they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.”

Stanton can be reached at [email protected]