Cold weather comes soon in much of the country, and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is warning homeowners to be wary before contracting for home heating services. There are tricks to interpreting the fine print in home heating service contracts and shopping for the best buys.
Prices for natural gas, heating oil and electricity are rising, sending consumers on shopping missions for the best bargains, but what might appear to be a good deal, could be a cleverly-disguised trap. Blumenthal said consumers should exercise severe scrutiny and caution before entering into longtime contracts and other arrangements that seem too good to be true.
When the deal seems first-rate, look for the fine-print catch, Blumenthal said. There's a reason for the clich: If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Keeping families warm for the winter is a necessity not a luxury making the market fertile for opportunists ready to pounce and exploit unsuspecting bargain shoppers that sign on the dotted line without asking critical questions.
My office will rigorously and aggressively pursue any company that deliberately deceives consumers with improper or illegal contracts, he said.
Blumenthal recommends these precautions:
READ THE FINE PRINT: Consumers should vigilantly read contracts before signing them, being sure they understand each and every fine-print point. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification if any part of the contract appears confusing.
PRE-PAY CONTRACTS: When paying in advance, consumers should scrupulously scan the fine print to determine whether pre-pay contracts will allow the company to charge the market rate after a certain number of months into the contract period. Consumers should be wary of such contracts, as they give the company freedom to set their own price for an extended period of time. In addition, consumers should ask home heating oil contractors about the company's own oil supply source during the course of the contract to confirm that the contractor will be capable of supplying the oil.
CHECK THE REFUND POLICY: Sometimes consumers pay for more oil than they actually use by the end of the season or contract period. Consumers should determine before signing a contract whether the company is willing to refund excess payment for oil or credit it toward the next contract.
LOCKED VS. CAPPED PRICES: Some companies offer contracts with a locked price, where consumers are locked into a single rate throughout the contract. Others offer a capped price, where the price could waver, but never exceed a certain amount. Either is acceptable, but consumers should be aware of their options.
SHOP AROUND: Don't let a company coerce you into signing a contract immediately, sending a false sense of urgency. Invest reasonable time to research for the best prices and ask trustworthy acquaintances what companies they use and trust.
BACKGROUND CHECKS: Before locking into a contract, consumers should ask the home heating oil dealer if it is registered with the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) and obtain the company's registration number to confirm it's validly registered with DCP. In addition, the consumer should contact the Better Business Bureau and Attorney General's office to determine whether complaints have been made against the company.