Woman donates plasma to pay high electric bill

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - A southwest Houston woman claims she has donated plasma more than once in order to pay her electric bill.

"I have donated plasma to keep the air conditioning going," Patience Lacordia said.

Lacordia claims Acacia Energy has charged her excessive fees, refuses to send her a statement and will not allow her to switch electric providers.

Acacia Energy disputes many of the issues raised in this report. It's full comments are at the end of this article.

The Better Business Bureau of Houston has rated the company an "F" for an alleged series of unanswered complaints related to customer service and billing issues.

"That 'F' is not common right now. The market has been cleaned up and this is sticking out," Houston BBB Chief Executive Officer Dan Parsons said.

During a recent seven-month period, The Public Utility Commission logged more than 50 complaints against the company, according to a log of utility commission complaints.

Lacordia claims she has been "hung up on" several times while speaking with representatives at an Acacia Call Center. Local 2 Investigates witnessed one event where the line disconnected when Lacordia asked about switching providers.

"Everything in this house has been pawned in order to pay a light bill. There's a place down the street called 'The Biomat.' I was going to "The Biomat' to donate plasma in order to pay the electric bill," Lacordia said.

Local 2 Investigates Joel Eisenbaum email correspondence with Acacia Energy, full text of company responses

Eisenbaum: "Acacia Energy has an 'F' rating with the BBB in Houston. The majority of the filed complaints are unanswered by your company. These complaints are for customer service and billing issues. The PUC in Texas also notes complaints."

Company Response: "Acacia Energy has a policy of responding all complaints in a timely fashion.  We currently have on record 5 BBB complaints that were received, processed and responded to.  Acacia Energy transferred its day to day operations office from Houston to Spicewood, TX  recently. (Houston remains open for Human Resources and basic Admin only.)  In the process of reviewing  your inquiry, two additional complaints from May 29 and June 11  were found that have not been processed or responded to.  This was due to an error during the transition.  We take complaints very seriously and our intent is always to review and resolve issues quickly.  Acacia Energy will immediately  review and respond to the two open complaints.  Further, Acacia Energy will verify and change the address and contact name on file with the BBB.  At this time we are not aware on any complaints with the BBB or the PUC that have not been responded to promptly. "

Eisenbaum: "How do you explain the bad BBB rating? Why have you not worked to resolve these issues?"

Company Response: "Given that we only have on record seven complaints with two open (don't get Acacia wrong, we want zero complaints!) and have done business with tens of thousands of customers over 2 years, we did not know we had a bad rating with the BBB and are concerned and disappointed with such a low rating given the small sampling.  We take this very seriously and will contact the BBB immediately to investigate the reason for the bad rating and what can be done to the resolve this.  We have never been contacted by the BBB to inform us of the rating issue.  But again, we will resolve this immediately. "

Eisenbaum: "Customer **** acct # **** states she does not receive a formal bill displaying usage, only text messages alerting her to replenish her prepaid account. She believes she is being overcharged with various fees and penalties. And she states she is hung up on by customer service when asking about what is necessary to switch providers. We witnessed one such incident."

Company Response: "Customer *** is on a AMS prepaid plan and has been on this plan since January 25, 2012.  Per PUC regulations this type of plan does not generate a formal bill for energy usage.  Per the PUC regulations, customers are contacted electronically whenever their balances fall below an estimated 7 days of remaining usage.   These messages may be delivered via email, text message or voice mail.  Ms. **** agreed to receive notifications via text.  Should Ms. **** ever have questions regarding her account she can request a statement of usage and payment (SUP) to be sent to her via mail or email.  Further, Acacia provides details of all account charges by day via the website, which any customer can log onto with the account # and PIN #.

"As outlined in the Terms of Service sent to Ms. **** and available on line at acaciaenergy.com, Ms. **** may be charged certain event driven fees such a disconnect fee or reconnect fee.  In reviewing her account, we have noted that Ms. *****'s account has been disconnected 9 times due to the inability to maintain the required positive account balance as outlined by the PUC and our PrePaid Disclosure Statement she received.  We have not found any fees on her account outside the fees charged for events per the terms of service.

"During the course of Ms. ****'s tenure with Acacia Energy she has requested, and Acacia Energy has granted, 14 separate Deferred Payment Plan arrangements allowing her to keep her services on via these payment arrangements.  As part of these arrangements and as approved the the PUC, when a Retail Electric Provider (Acacia Energy) gives a customer a deferred payment arrangement they are allowed to place a "switch hold" on the customer's account.  Anytime a customer enters into such an arrangement, a full disclosure is reviewed and recorded with the customer and a copy of the terms that are agreed upon are mailed to the customer.   This process allows the REP to protect themselves from customers leaving without paying the monies advanced to the customer, which the customer in turn uses to keep their power on.  This program encourages a REP to extend payment assistance to customers that might not otherwise be able to receive such benefits.

"In order for any customer who has a deferred payment balance to switch providers they simply must pay off the balance of the deferment only in full and the switch hold is immediately released.  In the case of Ms. *****, she current has an outstanding PUC complaint stating that her switch hold has not been released.  A review of our records show that this is not the case.  Each time Ms. **** has paid off a deferment with Acacia Energy her switch has been released.  In the event Ms. **** opens another deferred payment plan a new switch hold will be issued on the account.   She recently entered into a new deferment with Acacia Energy on 6/20/12 for $42.25 and only owes $16.50 to pay it off and remove the switch hold once more.

"Acacia Energy is utilizing a full service, third party, call center with an excellent record of service.  We have no record of any of our reps hanging up on Ms. *****.  If someone hung up on her we would resolve that immediately.  This is not acceptable.  If Ms. ***** can provide us with the call day and time, or even the phone number she called from, Acacia will request those recordings, listen to them, and take appropriate action.  We apologize if she ever has had that experience.  If you personally witnessed a call with a hang up, we will need the date and time of the call and the number you called from and we will pull that recording as well."

Eisenbaum:"What will you do in her case. if anything?"

Company Response: "If Ms. ****'s goal is to remove the switch hold that is currently in place on her account, Acacia Energy will, with her approval, close out the deferred payment plan and remove the switch hold.  It should be noted that if we close the deferment, Ms. *** will need find a new service provider quickly or make sure her account with Acacia Energy maintains the proper account balance to remain active.

"We welcome any further feedback or questions you may have.  We take customer service extremely seriously and we fully intend on following through on each of the concerns you noted.

"We thank you for giving us the opportunity to provide you with these responses."

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