Consumer Advisory: Winter is here; watch out for scams and energy costs

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With the arrival of Pennsylvania’s first significant snowfall of the season and the bitterly cold temperatures that followed, Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane today advised consumers about common problems during cold weather.

“Decreasing temperatures often mean increasing utility bills for consumers, but there are some simple ways for Commonwealth residents to improve energy efficiency and save money this time of year,” Attorney General Kane said. “At the same time, con artists are always on the prowl for ways to take advantage of consumers. It is important for consumers to stay educated and be proactive during freezing and inclement weather.”

Attorney General Kane offered tips for consumers to protect themselves, including avoiding scams related to home repair and following the advice of public emergency, energy and utility organizations.

Consumers also should be cognizant of their energy usage during the cold weather.

For consumers who are considering or are currently enrolled with an Electric Generation Supplier, it is important to know that starting this year, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has approved new regulations that require utilities to accelerate the “switching” time frames. This will allow consumers to switch suppliers within three business days once the utility has been notified.

If you or someone you know needs help paying heating bills, the Pennsylvania Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program can help both home owners and renters cover their heating costs between now and April 3. Additionally, Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development can provide free weatherization services for qualifying residents.

Attorney General Kane also advised consumers to follow the Public Utility Commission’s tips during power outages, including calling utility companies instead of 9-1-1 if the power goes or remains out (unless there is another emergency) and limiting travel during outages involving downed power lines.

Winter Home Improvement Scams

Attorney General Kane warned consumers to watch out for “storm chasers” or scammers that will try to take advantage of them when they are in need. She said that all home improvement contractors who do more than $5,000 worth of business per year in Pennsylvania are required to register with the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. However, registration is not an endorsement of the contractor’s honesty or quality of work.

All home improvement and home repair contractors are required to provide consumers with specific information before proceeding with any project, including:

  • the contractor’s registration number, which must be included in all contracts, estimates and advertisements;
  • a written contract for any project costing more than $500;
  • information about the consumer’s three-day right to cancel a contract;
  • details about the total sales price, and materials and labor for the project; and
  • an approximate start date and end date for the project.

Additionally, Pennsylvania law limits the amount of any up-front payments that contractors can collect. For projects costing more than $5,000, contractors may not accept advance payment of more than one-third of the total price of the contract.

Consumers should also get multiple estimates for any major project and check references for recent work before committing to a project. Consumers should also ensure liability and personal insurance coverage in contracts and confirm that coverage with the insurance carrier.

Energy Use and Conservation

Attorney General Kane provided the following tips for consumers to save money on their utility bills, know their rights as consumers, and ensure the safety of their families and property:

  • Maintain your heating system by having it checked by a professional at least once a year and changing the filters regularly.
  • Replace old thermostats with programmable units to lower temperatures when your home is not occupied or you are sleeping.
  • Have adequate insulation throughout the house and around your water heater.
  • Install weather stripping or plastic sheeting to seal cracks and holes around windows and doors to prevent heat from escaping.
  • Keep your energy costs down by using space heaters or fireplaces to heat smaller rooms and conserving energy on heating, hot water and cooking.

Consumers with questions or complaints can contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection’s toll-free hotline at 1-800-441-2555 or visit the Attorney General’s website at www.attorneygeneral.gov

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