Late Sunday afternoon, a man in a US Energy jacket and a NICOR cap came to my door. He introduced himself as being from US Energy, but had a conspicuous NICOR label on his clipboard. He asked to see a copy of my gas bill.
I couldn't think why he would need that.
He explained that NICOR had sent him, because the company was planning a rate hike, but that if I "qualified" they wouldn't be able to raise my rates, and he needed to see my gas bill to determine whether or not I qualified. US Energy, he said, actually supplied the gas; NICOR just supplied the lines. "A lot of people don't know that," he said, and launched into an explanation of the utility's structure. I didn't care all that much and I'm not at all sure that it was accurate, but it sounded very official.
I learned early in my career that letting people know I was on to them was a bad way to gather information, so I asked as innocently as possible, "Doesn't NICOR have that information?" Well, yes, he conceded that they did, but it was up to US Energy to find out whether or not I was qualified to avoid that rate hike.
I couldn't help myself. I asked why they didn't get the information from NICOR.
He said it was because I was the one who had the paper copy of my bill. So, yeah, of course, that made perfect sense. Who would want to get a database import file with sortable information all in one place when they could go door to door on a cold Sunday afternoon, wait on the porch while people hunted up their gas bills, and then check one paper bill after another?
He flipped convincingly through the pages on his clipboard, creating more confusion. See, he'd told me more than once that he just needed to LOOK at my bill, yet someone's gas bills were attached to his clipboard. And he wasn't carrying a copy machine. I guess the gas bills he carried were meant to show me that other people were handing theirs over, but instead it showed me that he was carrying props...if his story were accurate, those gas bills would have been returned to their rightful owners by now.
I told him (truthfully) that I paid my gas bill online and I didn't have a paper copy of my bill. He asked if maybe I could print one out. (So much for that whole "because you're the one who has the paper bill" thing, hm?)
He said he'd come back.
Monday morning, I called NICOR. The customer service rep at NICOR confirmed that NICOR hadn't sent him, and asked whether I'd signed up with US Energy. Apparently, this is the company's standard approach to getting people to switch their service. As soon as I said I hadn't, though, NICOR lost interest. When I pointed out that these people were going around defrauding people in their name, NICOR said there was nothing they could do about it.
"It's fraud," I said. "It's illegal."
"Well, then," she told me, "you'd have to call the Citizen's Utility Board or the Better Business Bureau or someone like that. We have to remain neutral."
They have to remain neutral.
US Energy, certainly, is dirty. The man on my porch told me at least two direct lies in an effort to divert my business, and the extensive misleading props he carried and wore (along with his repetition of the same information in different words in response to my questions) made it clear that it wasn't just a spur of the moment departure or a case of accidental misspeaking. It's clearly a dishonest business practice and very probably a crime.
But who are the good guys? Why does NICOR "have to remain neutral" when it knows that an outside company is using its name to defraud NICOR customers? It seems to me quite the opposite, actually. I haven't had the chance to research it yet, but it seems to me that if NICOR knows that someone is holding himself (or themselves) out as representing NICOR in order to perpetrate fraud and chooses not to act on that, it's a ratification that just might mean NICOR is just as liable to its defrauded consumers as US Energy.
Definitely bears further investigation.