Consumerist Undercover At IDT Energy: The Meltdown

From the moment I met up with James, and Doreen, who was going our way, things began to fall apart. Eric told me to follow James, not Carl, who was going solo. I was to listen to James’ instructions, follow his example, and go to wherever he decided we should spend the day. Today was Mt. Vernon, NY, almost 90 minutes from the offices of Midtown Promotions.

Photo: James pitches his offerings to hair salon employees in the Bronx.

This is part 6 of our undercover investigation into IDT Energy, an energy reseller in the New York area…


Following the morning meeting, James told Doreen and I he was heading to Mt. Vernon, which is just north of the Bronx. Mt. Vernon is a small town made up, in part, by commuters to Manhattan and the rest of New York City. James thought we’d be able to find lots of apartment buildings, although I doubted this considering that I knew it to be suburbia. We took the 2 train and got off to catch the crosstown bus. I headed towards the bus stop, as a subway attendant directed, when I noticed James going in another direction. By the time I caught up with him at the bottom of the stairs on the sidewalk, he was already negotiating a ride with a driver standing outside his minivan cab.

Driver: Seven dollars.
James: Six!
Me: What are you doing? I thought we were taking a bus…
Driver: Seven!
James: Okay. Everybody get in.
Me: I am not paying for this. It’s all you.

Doreen and I climbed into the back and James took shotgun. The driver was charming a chubby middle-aged Hispanic woman on the sidewalk with his charming and thick Jamaican accent. After a moment, the driver reached in through the passenger window, over James, to grab his business card. James jerked back in his seat. “What are you doing?!” he yelped.

The driver, still leaning over James’ lap, looked at him and said slowly and distinctly, “I am only getting this woman a business card.”

It was an odd moment but the rest of the ride went well, with the driver cracking jokes about marriage and riffing on the strange fellow Jamaican in his passenger seat. I got into the act and was very self-deprecating and all started out pretty well. From the rear-view mirror, I saw the rain clouds outside reflected on the driver’s thick sunglasses. Then,

Driver: Where do you want to go?
James: Some apartment buildings. Take me to some apartment buildings.
Driver: Like those?

He pointed to the projects. Uh, no, not those, please.

It was 11:30 when the meeting ended, 12:30 when we got off the subway, and 1:00 pm when James and the driver settled on a drop point in a quiet residential neighborhood, consisting mainly of small cottage houses. It was about three minutes from where we got into the van.

I could tell James was amped and determined to make the top sellers list for the day. From deciding on the definite gamble of a work-a-day town like Mt. Vernon, which seeing as how it was far from Midtown, ensured us only a few hours of actual on-the-ground, to haggling with the cab driver about price, to haggling with the cab driver about where the greatest density of large apartment buildings were in Mt. Vernon (James said he scoped the area before), it was clear James had left the morning meeting as pumped as the trainers wanted him.

Doreen was aggressive too, in her own fashion. Her deal was to never stop smiling shyly. “My baby’s in the hospital,” she said in her Bronx accent at one point.

“Your boyfriend’s in the hospital?!” I exclaimed

“No,” Doreen corrected, “My baby’s in the hospital.”

She was twenty, Dominican, and the mother of eight-month-old girl. She’d been working for Midtown since the girl’s birth. Over a cigarette and a stroll through our first neighborhood, Doreen told me about her experiences in the field. There were some days full of sales, and some just full of trudging through puddles.

Doreen and James agreed that the rain would help our sales. “People will feel sorry for us,” said Doreen. The two of them swapped war stories, of the marathons in snowstorms, nailing signature after signature; of nearly 100% success rates in torrential rain.

We reached the first row of “promising” houses. James’ version of “promising” houses meant one-door cottages with yards between them. For the ground we would cover, we would only do half the doors I had hit each day in East Elmhurst/Jackson Heights.

At my first door, a short black woman in her forties answered. “Yes, can I help you?” she asked politely.
“Yeah, I’m with IDT Energy, we’re the suppliers for Con Edison, ” I said.
“You gonna do something about how high my bill is?” she snipped.
“Well, that’s what I’m here to d—”
“You gonna do something about my lights being turned off?” I saw past her into the kitchen, clearly illuminated by an overhead light.
“That’s not me, mam,” I started to say, “That’s Con Ed. We don’t have anything to do with them. We’re just their suppliers…”
She continued to vent, then closed the door in my face.

Back down on the sidewalk, James called after a young Hispanic woman who had walked by him. At first, I thought he was hitting on her, but through his Jamaican accent and what I could gather as the wind whipped his voice back to me, he was asking her to direct us to any large apartment buildings in the area. James followed after the woman.

He passed alongside a basketball/handball court, clearly a schoolyard. The Hispanic woman was about thirty feet ahead when James really began to give chase. He started asking, “Is that an apartment building? Is that an apartment building? Do you live around here?”

She responded, No, that’s a school, I don’t know, and No. Thirty-seconds later the now power-walking woman entered a building James had guessed housed apartments. He shook his head after her.

I was unnerved by what I saw. James, a total stranger in a group of three total strangers on a deserted and rundown block, had just chased a woman by herself down the street. James wasn’t swayed by my protests, saying that Bronx girls “know how to handle themselves. These are smart girls, very smart.”

I argued that had zero to do with what had just happened. Even if I assumed he was right, that she was of superior intelligence, there was no way she could have known we weren’t con artists, thieves, or violent criminals intent on hurting her. I’ve been chased down New York streets before and in every case, despite the pursuer’s protestations, I can say with some certainty that these people were liars and possibly dangerous.

Still, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, so I just suggested moving to a different area. Doreen agreed. Referring to IDT, she said, “They’ve already been here.” James wasn’t certain the area was tapped out, and besides, he said, we had a perfectly good building in front of us. All we needed to do was find the superintendent.

After ringing a few bells in the building, we gained admittance and took to separate floors. Doreen was not supposed to be working with us and vice versa, but there was no real reason why we couldn’t work together. Safety in numbers was the name of the game; Doreen was young, a new mother, and tiny. And I sure as hell wanted her to stick around— her casual determination to make a buck was a nice contrast to James’ relentlessness.

A woman in the lobby told us there was an office behind her building, and that we might find the super there.

James rang the office buzzer while Doreen and I hung back. After a minute, we turned around to see two maintenance men, dressed in blue jumpers with name patches. Doreen asked them if one of them was the super, and the taller, older, bulkier one said yes. At the same time, a rotund Caucasian woman with large glasses and a loud, piercing voice opened the office door. “Can I help you?” she barked.

As soon as James identified himself as a representative of IDT Energy, she cut him off. Residents didn’t take care of their own Con Ed bills, she yelled. She went on to say we weren’t supposed to be on the property without consent.
“I know,” James replied, “That’s why we are here looking for the super.”
“The super’s right here,” Doreen called back.
But the rotund woman would hear none of it. “There’s already been people through here. And now, if you don’t leave, I’m going to have to call the police.”

Oh, Jesus. Here we go.

“But what about Keyspan?” I heard James say, but that was the last of it for me; I had already begun the quick walk back to the street and safety. I wasn’t about to get arrested for this bullshit— it wouldn’t bring me any closer to the truth and would be a gigantic pain in the ass.

“James!” I called back, trying to snap him back to reality.

On the sidewalk, Doreen told us she was going to go her own way. The incident was the last straw for this neighborhood. I immediately volunteered to accompany her. I knew hanging around James was a waste of time; he would surely have spent the whole day knocking on doors of people who already switched if we hadn’t put our feet down.

James began to follow us, and after losing us along the road, where he couldn’t resist knocking on more doors in the middle of our discussion, called Doreen to tell her to wait.

I began to plot my getaway. Incidentally, I could hardly breathe through my nose thanks to my allergies. It wouldn’t be a lie to say I was sick, and when you factor in that I had been staying up all night trying to outline the day’s work experiences, it was pretty clear I needed an early end to the day to stay sane and healthy.

A woman in a real estate office James had pitched to directed him to a street nearby that supposedly featured several large apartment buildings. On our way, we stopped in one building that had its front door and second door wide open. It was definitely questionable whether we should have been there, whether we were in fact trespassing. Nonetheless, in a building of perhaps fifteen apartments, no sales were made. While working a floor by myself, I spoke to a very excited old man who told me he’d just signed up for IDT. Shit. Another building already pillaged.

Not long after this, I tried to slip away, feigning an increased illness. James instantly whipped out his cell phone and called up Midtown’s office number, then tried to push it into my hand. “Talk to Eric,” he said.

“That’s okay,” I said hurriedly, turning away from the out-thrust phone. “Tell him I’ll call him later.”

I never did. Prying into people’s lives, trying to get them to buy something I didn’t believe in, hanging out with increasingly scary people in sketchy situations… not only was it repulsive, but I wasn’t getting a damn piece of information on the core reason for conducting this sordid investigation in the first place: to determine whether IDT Energy employees were representing themselves as being from ConEd at customer’s doors.

I was done working for Midtown, but I wasn’t done with them. I went home to transcribe my tape recordings, and post Craigslist ads looking for people with information about Midtown Promotions and IDT-Energy.

I got one response.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Day One
2. The Job Interview
3. The Day Of O
4. Let’s Get Juiced
5. The Meeting
6. The Meltdown
7. The Confession

Note: No definitive ties have been established between Midtown Promotions and DS-MAX/Innovage.