This past winter in New Jersey has helped uncover a laundry list of problems related to some third-party energy suppliers. An increasing number of New Jerseyans have been opting for these outside providers instead of their local utilities.

Electrician on utility pole

An Assembly hearing was held Thursday in response to the overwhelming number of complaints from customers over the past few months. Legislators and consumer advocates have been flooded with calls and emails citing overpromising, underdelivering and abuse.

A primary point of contention was the alarmingly high spike in electric and gas bills that customers experienced due to the very cold and snowy winter. Those who went with a "variable rate" contract were unpleasantly surprised when opening their mail.

"The price I pay jumped from a normal of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour to 20 cents per kilowatt hour in January, which was an extra $62.96 over what I would've had to pay to PSE&G," Jersey resident Robert Rashkes told the Assembly panel.

Stephen Bennett, the New Jersey chairman of the Retail Energy Supply Association, said "no reputable supplier out there" relishes the opportunity to a hike a customer's bill.

"This is something that a lot of suppliers didn't see coming," Bennett said. "Nobody saw the winter that we just had coming. Nobody saw the price increases on the wholesale market coming, or very few did."

Bennett said the reputable dealers are working with their customers, either through refunds or payment plans, "to make this right with them."

The harsh winter, though, presented only a fraction of the overall issue, according to Stephanie Brand, director of the state Rate Counsel.

"The problem really is how these companies are doing business," she said.

Brand recalled customers who were paying variable rates, even though they signed up for fixed payments, and some who never even knew they entered a contract until they received a bill. Others complained of being inundated by phone calls from third-party suppliers after attempting to switch back to regular electric service.

I do believe that most third-party suppliers are following the rules, are playing fairly and are not trying to dupe ratepayers, but there are definitely some bad actors out there. And they need to be reigned in," Brand added.

The Rate Counsel has shared its findings with officials at the state Division of Consumer Affairs, who indicated they would investigate the matter.

Bennett agreed that better oversight is needed, and the state should fully investigate all complaints.

"It shouldn't be a witch hunt, but if there are bad actors, and they are systematically mistreating their customers, they should be dealt with," he said.

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