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November 2009

Beware: Thieves Who Say They Are From Your Electric Cooperative

Electric cooperative members in several states are reporting that they are receiving phone calls from thieves posing as employees of their local electric cooperative. The thieves are either: (1) telling members that they owe money on their accounts and will have their services disconnected unless they immediately provide their credit card or other financial account information or (2) telling the members that they can receive federal stimulus dollars to pay their utility bills or other bills but they must provide their social security numbers and other personal identifying information.

The only guarantee I can make you if you receive this call is that this is not being made by your local electric cooperative and you stand a very high probability of becoming a victim of identity theft.

Your local electric cooperative will not call you seeking personal information over the telephone. If you receive this type of call, hang up immediately and report it to your local electric co-op office and law enforcement. You can never be sure the people calling you are whom they say they are. 

Local Consumer Protection Offices to Close  

Wisconsin Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection Department (DATCP) Secretary Rod Nilsestuen just announced that, due to budget cuts, his agency is closing the Consumer Protection offices in Wauwatosa, Eau Claire, and Green Bay and consolidating the regional operations into the main office in Madison.

Deputy Secretary Randy Romanski said, “During these tough economic times, it is necessary for the Bureau of Consumer Protection to streamline services and save money over the long-term, maximizing our resources to best serve our customers. The bureau’s new structure will successfully meet its fiscal responsibilities and continue to address the most significant consumer protection problems of Wisconsin residents at the same time.”

The regional offices will close by early December and many of the 20 affected staff members are expected to be offered positions in the Madison office. How much staff decides to move to Madison will be critical as to whether the Bureau of Consumer Protection retains the considerable complaint-handling experience its regional staff has gained over many years.

In addition to this major change, DATCP is reducing its Consumer Protection Bureau staffing by 5.8 full-time positions due to recent legislative budget cuts, which is a 15-percent decrease in overall Consumer Protection Bureau staffing. This reduction certainly will have a negative impact on consumer complaint handling.

According to department representatives, the regional office closing will likely mean 10 percent fewer complaints filed with the department since many of those came through “walk-in” traffic at those offices.

I find it difficult to criticize DATCP for the cuts being made to a consumer protection program that has been considered one of the top programs in the nation because of the state’s projected overall deficit of nearly $7 billion. However, as I noted in my May 2009 “Consumer Checkpoint” column, the state’s consumer protection program costs $2.34 million but generates more than twice as much in fines, forfeitures, and restitution than it costs state taxpayers. Until now, this has been a very good rate of return, particularly for a government program. However, now I can’t help but wonder if the state is balancing its books in the short term but is then leaving an even larger deficit for future years. 

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