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Editorial: SC PSC should bar Dominion, other monopolies from selling customer data

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Dominion customers are receiving solicitations that look like they come from the utility, for insurance most don't need, from a company Dominion sold our personal data to.

Have you gotten your Dominion Energy come-on saying you need to buy insurance for the gas lines inside your house?

Three things you need to know about it, especially if you’re seriously considering letting the company add a $2.95 surcharge to your monthly power bill to cover it:

• It’s not actually from Dominion Energy, even though it came in a 9-by-12 envelope with Dominion’s logo in the upper left corner and the money would be collected by Dominion.

• If you have homeowners insurance, you probably don’t need this coverage, because you’re probably already covered.

• This is not a particularly good way for our new monopoly power company to endear itself to S.C. customers.

The solicitation comes as the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff is pushing the state Public Service Commission to adopt a regulation — similar to regulations that already apply to Dominion in North Carolina — that would prohibit Dominion from selling customers’ information without their consent and restrict how it can market these third-party offers.

As Columbia’s State newspaper reports, gas customers received the come-on because Dominion sold their addresses to HomeServe USA, a Connecticut company that has been subject to several complaints nationally because of its misleading pitches. The solicitation, which comes with a return envelope with a Columbia address that further misleads, warns that “you have not chosen the in-Home Gas Line Repair Program from HomeServe to protect against an interior gas line failure that may cost hundreds in out-of-pocket expenses to replace if a breakdown occurs.”

Water customers in Charleston and Columbia might recognize the approach, because those cities also have contracts that allow the company to send out similar solicitations about water-line insurance.

What Charleston and Columbia can and can’t do with our personal information is controlled by their respective mayors and city councils, whom we elect. What Dominion can do with our personal information is up to the PSC — which unfortunately has what can generously be called a mixed record when it comes to actually regulating power companies. As we were reminded again last week.

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As The State reported, Dominion is fighting the proposal by the Office of Regulatory Staff to restrict its use of our customer data, arguing in legal papers that the proposed regulations are “disconnected from real-world concerns and without tangible benefits to customers.”

Frankly, it’s Dominion that seems to be disconnected.

It’s hard to understand how any monopoly could be allowed to sell customers’ information to third parties in the first place, since “monopoly” means we have no choice but to buy our electricity from the power company we’ve been assigned.

The PSC shouldn’t simply prohibit Dominion from selling our information without our approval — it certainly should do that. It should require customer approval from any utilities that want to sell customer information. And not simply opt-out approval, which tends to be couched in small-print legalese that causes most people’s eyes to glaze over. It needs to require opt-in, so no information is sold until we specifically tell the utilities they can sell it.

Taking those actions wouldn’t simply be the right response from a state agency whose sole reason to exist is to protect ratepayers from being taken advantage of by monopoly utilities. It also might help commissioners shed their reputation as the lapdogs of those utilities.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said that Charleston Water System sold customer data to HomeServe. The water system does have a contract that allows HomeServe to use its logo to market water-line insurance to its customers, in return for a commission on sales. But HomeServe obtains mailing addresses from public-domain sources.

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