National Consumer Protection Week


 

National Consumer Protection Week

National Consumer Protection Week is a time to help District residents understand their consumer rights and make well-informed decisions about their utility bills. Consumers have access to an array of services from competitive suppliers as well as continued access to the regulated services of utilities.

As the utility regulator, the DCPSC wants to ensure that District residents can:

  • Understand their rights and responsibilities as a utility consumer
  • Protect themselves against utility scams
  • Make informed decisions in choosing a service provider
Slamming: Switching Your Authorized Utility Company Without Permission

Energy Slamming is the illegal practice of switching a consumer's energy company without express authorization from the customer of record.

Telecom Slamming is also the illegal practice of switching a consumer's traditional wireline telephone company for local, local toll, or long-distance service without permission. The FCC's slamming rules help protect consumers from illegal switches and provide a remedy if you've been slammed. The rules also prohibit unreasonable delays in an authorized switch by your local telephone company.

In the District of Columbia, such a practice violates the District’s Consumer Bill of Rights.

What to do if you've been slammed

If your authorized energy company - electricity or natural gas - company has been switched without your permission:

  • Call your authorized energy company and tell them you have been slammed, i.e., switched to another company without your permission, and that you wish to be returned to your authorized energy company; the slamming company and tell it that you want the problem fixed and that, under FCC rules, you don't have to pay for the first 30 days of its service.
  • Call the DCPSC Office of Consumer Services at 202-626-5120 or contact them online and tell them you have been switched to another company without your permission and you wish to file a complaint against that company.
  • Pay all undisputed charges on time. Electric service cannot be disconnected for non-payment of disputed charges. And your credit will not be affected by non-payment of disputed charges, unless you do not pay the charges if they are later found to be valid.

If your authorized telephone company has been switched without your permission:

  • Call the slamming company and tell it that you want the problem fixed and that, under FCC rules, you don't have to pay for the first 30 days of its service.
  • Call your authorized company to inform it of the slam, and that you want to be switched back with the same calling plan you had before the slam.
  • Also, tell your authorized local telephone company that you want all charges for switching companies removed from your bill.

If you have been slammed but HAVE NOT paid the bill of the slamming company, you DO NOT have to pay the slamming company for up to 30 days after being slammed. You also do not have to pay your authorized telephone company for any charges for up to 30 days. After 30 days, you must pay your authorized company for service, but at its rates, not the slammer's rates.

If you have been slammed but discover it after you HAVE paid the bill of the slamming company, the slamming company must pay your authorized company 150 percent of the charges you paid the slamming company. Out of this amount, your authorized company will reimburse you 50 percent of the charges you paid the slamming company. Or, you can ask your authorized company to recalculate and resend your bill using its rates instead of the slamming company's rates.

Authorized switching methods

  • Your telephone service cannot legally be switched from your existing authorized telephone company to a new company unless the new company verifies the switch by one of the following methods:
  • Using an independent third party to verify your oral authorization to switch
  • Obtaining your signature on a letter that indicates, in writing, that you want to switch authorized telephone companies
  • Providing a toll-free number that you can call to confirm the order to switch authorized telephone companies

Filing a slamming complaint

The DCPSC works in conjunction with the FCC in investigating slamming complaints.  You can file a slamming complaint with the DCPSC either online, or by calling  the Office of Consumer Services at 202-626-5120.

You must include a copy of any bill you are complaining about. Please indicate on the copy of the bill the name of the slamming telephone company and the disputed charges.

Cramming: Adding Services or Charges to a Customer’s Utility Bill Without Permission

Cramming is the illegal practice of adding charges to a consumer's energy or telephone bill for additional services without permission. Examples of cramming include charges that are added without a clear description of the service provided (e.g. such as "monthly fees" and "service charges") and/or charges for services that the consumer did not request or authorize (e.g. power options, generation options, pay-per-use services, and club memberships).  If you notice services or charges on your energy or telephone bill that seem unfamiliar and you have not authorized, there is a possibility that your bill has been “crammed,” which is illegal in the District of Columbia.

What to do if you think you have been crammed:

  • Contact your energy or telephone service provider and request an explanation of the services and/or charges on your bill for which you are unfamiliar;
  • Call the cramming company and ask the company to provide proof that you agreed to the unauthorized charges.
  • Pay all undisputed charges on time. Service cannot be disconnected for non-payment of disputed charges.  And your credit will not be affected by non-payment of disputed charges, unless you do not pay the charges if they are later found to be valid.

Filing a cramming complaint

Call the DCPSC Office of Consumer Services at 202-626-5120 or contact them online and request that they investigate the unfamiliar charges or services on your bill.

Spoofing: Using Caller ID to Impersonate a Utility

Caller ID spoofing is when a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to your caller ID display to disguise their identity.  Spoofing is often used as part of an attempt to trick someone into giving away valuable personal information so it can be used in fraudulent activity or sold illegally, but also can be used legitimately, for example, to display the toll-free number for a business.

Tips to avoid spoofing scams

  • You may not be able to tell right away if an incoming call is spoofed. Be extremely careful about responding to any request for personal identifying information.
  • When possible, don't answer calls from unknown numbers. If you answer such a call and suspect it is fraudulent, hang up immediately.
  • If you answer the phone and the caller - or a recording - asks you to hit a button to stop getting the calls, you should just hang up. Scammers often use this trick to identify potential targets.
  • Do not respond to any questions, especially those that can be answered with "Yes" or "No."
  • Never give out personal information such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, mother's maiden names, passwords or other identifying information in response to unexpected calls.
  • If you get an inquiry from someone who says they represent a company or a government agency, hang up and call the phone number on your account statement, in the phone book, or on the company's or government agency's website to verify the authenticity of the request. You will usually get a written statement in the mail before you get a phone call from a legitimate source, particularly if the caller is asking for a payment.
  • Use caution if you are being pressured for information immediately – when in doubt, just hang up.
  • If you have a voice mail account with your phone service, be sure to set a password for it. Some voicemail services are preset to allow access if you call in from your own phone number. A hacker could spoof your home phone number and gain access to your voice mail if you do not set a password.
  • Talk to your phone company about call blocking tools they may have and check into apps that you can download to your mobile device to block unwanted calls. Information on available robocall blocking tools is available at fcc.gov/robocalls.

What can you do if your number is being spoofed?

If you get calls from people saying your number is showing up on their caller ID, it's likely that your number has been spoofed. We suggest first that you do not answer any calls from unknown numbers, but if you do, explain that your telephone number is being spoofed and that you did not actually make any calls. You can also place a message on your voicemail letting callers know that your number is being spoofed. Usually scammers switch numbers frequently. It is likely that within hours they will no longer be using your number.

When is spoofing illegal?

Under the Truth in Caller ID Act, FCC rules prohibit anyone from transmitting misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongly obtain anything of value. Anyone who is illegally spoofing can face penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation. However, spoofing is not always illegal. There are legitimate, legal uses for spoofing, like when a doctor calls a patient from her personal mobile phone and displays the office number rather than the personal phone number or a business displays its toll-free call-back number.

What is blocking or labeling?

If a telephone number is blocked or labeled as a "potential scam" on your caller ID, it is possible the number has been spoofed. Several phone companies and app developers offer call-blocking and labeling services that detect whether a call is likely to be fraudulent based on call patterns, consumer complaints or other means.

FCC rules do not prohibit call blocking or labeling technologies, however the FCC is very concerned about ensuring that lawful calls are completed and has encouraged providers who block calls to establish a means for a caller whose number is blocked to contact the provider and remedy the problem.

You can legally block the transmission of your phone number when you make calls, so your number will appear as "unknown." Doing so is not spoofing.

What are the caller ID rules for telemarketers?

FCC rules specifically require that a telemarketer:

  • Transmit or display its telephone number or the telephone number on whose behalf the call is being made, and, if possible, its name or the name of the company for which it is selling products or services.
  • Display a telephone number you can call during regular business hours to ask to no longer be called. This rule applies even to companies that already have an established business relationship with you.
How to protect yourself against scams
  • Always examine your utility bill immediately and thoroughly. If you see a new company name on your bill, call the number that's shown on that portion of the bill and ask for an explanation.
  • Be aware of the methods companies can use to change your authorized supplier legally. The DCPSC’s Consumer Bill of Rights requires suppliers to obtain your clear permission to make such a change.
  • Ask your authorized supplier to place a "freeze" on your account to keep anyone other than you from changing your authorized supplier selection.

Some service providers promote their services and rates through door-to-door salespersons or telemarketers. All representatives must comply with the DCPSC’s Consumer Bill of Rights, which requires:

  • Home solicitations are limited to the hours between 9 a.m. and sunset.
  • Telephone solicitations shall be made only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.
  • Consumers must be advised of their right to cancel.
  • Consumers should be given a contact number for the supplier to cancel or ask follow-up questions.
  • Consumers have a right to request not to be contacted by the suppliers.
  • Consumers should not provide account numbers or other personal information until AFTER you have determined that you want to be a customer of a supplier.

Utilities will also let you know ahead of time by phone or in your utility bill if they will be in your neighborhood.

If someone comes to your door, never open it if you do not recognize the person. You can ask for a photo ID through a window. All utility employees and contractors carry company ID badges displaying their name, photograph and identification number.

To verify a utility employee's identity, work being done or if you have concerns about the status of your account, call the following customer service lines:

  • Pepco's Customer Service: 202-833-7500
  • Verizon’s Customer Service Line: 1-800-837-4966 (residential) or 1-800-275-2355 (business)
  • Washington Gas’s Customer Service Line: 703-750-1000

Report Phone Scams

Utility representatives will never call you to ask you for cash or request that you purchase a prepaid credit card to make a payment on your bill.

If you believe you have been the target of a phone scam, report the suspicious activity to the police.

Report Identity Theft​

If you believe your identity has been stolen and a utility account has been opened in your name, you may make a claim regarding the fraudulent activity by filling out an affidavit and send it to service provider.

What to do when you want to switch your service provider

District residents can choose their electric generation and transmission supplier and their natural gas supplier. However, before choosing your supplier, consumers must be informed.

When choosing a service provider, consumers should do the following:

  • Choose a retail service provider with a reputation for delivering honest and transparent pricing. Talk to your neighbors, family and friends to find out who is their service provider. You can also contact the local Better Business Bureau chapter and the DCPSC to vet suppliers and identify the most reputable providers in the area.
  • Do not make an “on-the-spot” decision unless they have researched the supplier and understand the supplier’s terms and conditions for providing service. If you need help examining your contract, contact the Office of Consumer Services at 202-626-5120.
  • Read, read, read! Read every single line of your agreement – including the clauses and fine print – before you sign it.
  • Review your utility bill every month to stay on top of any changes in charges or suppliers. If you need help reading your utility bill, contact the Office of Consumer Services at 202-626-5120.
More Resources

For additional information about consumer protections, visit these other sites:

Federal Trade Commission: The Federal Trade Commission’s principal mission is the promotion of consumer protection and the elimination and prevention of anticompetitive business practices, such as coercive monopoly.

Office of the Attorney General: The Office of the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection works on your behalf to stop deceptive and unethical business practices.

Office of the People’s Counsel: The Office of the People's Counsel advocates for consumers of natural gas, electric, and telephone services.