NIPSCO, northern Indiana's gas and electric service provider, charges $5.95 to make an online payment with a credit card. Though $6 isn't a large amount of money, this practice is dishonest, contractually illegal and an insult to Indiana taxpayers.
By accepting online payments, the customer does all the work of data entry, thus NIPSCO is able to reduce the number of Hoosiers it employs in clerical jobs. NIPSCO is having its cake and eating it too, demanding an extra fee while it offers fewer Hoosiers jobs.
NIPSCO claims the fee is exacted by a 3rd party processing company, which is hogwash. The truth is that 1.) NIPSCO doesn't have to apply to state regulatory agencies to enact payment processing fees who are, apparently so dumb as to accept this as an operating cost, 2.) Credit card companies do not permit subscribing merchants to charge an extra fee to people who pay by credit card, 3.) NISOURCE, NIPSCO'S parent company, owns the 3rd party processing company, and 4.) NIPSCO is protecting it's relationship with hundreds of payment centers (Krogers, CheckSmart, etc., etc.) who charge a fee for accepting NIPSCO payments, thereby enabling NIPSCO to operate many fewer retail centers than it once did and, thus, contributing to the corporations outrageous profits (see below)
Merchants who subscribe to accept Visa, Master Card, American Express, etc. contractually agree not to impose any disincentive fees to customers who pay with a credit card. So NIPSCO is circumventing (ie illegally violating) this contract by running credit card payments through a bogus 3rd party. Every merchant who accepts credit cards should be complaining loudly to their card service provider about this shoddy practice. Master Card, Visa, American Express and Discover should not permit NISOURCE/NIPSCO to operate with different rules than other subscribing merchants.
Doubt me? Consider this: NIPSCO doesn't charge for an electronic withdrawal from a checking account (which is fully automated thus also eliminates the need for a clerical worker, by the way) but DOES charge $5.95 for paying with a debit card, which is just like a check, drawing from a bank account. Why? Because debit cards are operated by credit card companies and though NIPSCO doesn't give a fig about its customers, it cares a lot about the prospect of being sued by Visa or Master Card. This fee drops straight to NIPSCO's bottom line, contributing to its 9%+ profit last year -- nearly twice the average of Fortune 500 corporations.
On August 25, 2010, with Indiana's unemployment rate at 10.2%, Indiana state regulatory officials ( IURC) announced tentative approval of a nice gift to NIPSCO in the form of a 10% rate increase in electricity fees to residential customers, while doing nothing to prevent the firm's nickel and diming payment practices. It is a hoot to note that Indiana regulators spent 2 years (!) reaching the conclusion that in the midst of the deepest economic downturn since the 1930s, they should agree to a big fee increase.
Of the 5 commissioners on Indiana's Utility regulatory commission, 3 were appointed by Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and 2 by past Indiana governors Evan Bayh and Frank O'Bannon. These commissioners are patting themselves on the back for not having given NIPSCO all the increase it wanted and for chiding it about that plush 9% profit. I'm generally a fan of Mitch Daniels, and a free enterprise fan, but in this case I'd like to ask him what the devil those commissioners were examining that it took them 2 years to reach a conclusion? And why, given the economic straits of so many Indiana families, those regulators didn't simply say "no, not this year" ?
Says NIPSCO CEO Jimmy Staton, Improving customer service, increasing responsiveness, and enhancing the reliability of Indianas energy infrastructure have been key areas of focus for NIPSCO, Staton said. We have made recent progress in all of these areas, and the Commission has acknowledged our positive efforts. However, we know additional work remains. Our entire team embraces that challenge, and is committed to delivering material improvements in those key areas as we move forward.
Staton spins like a politician. The truth is that while Hoosiers are trying to figure out how to pay that 10% rate increase, and that offensive $6 payment charge, they should know that with his $537,300 salary, Mr. Staton won't have any difficulty paying for his own utility bills. Nor will Robert Skaggs Jr., CEO at NISOURCE, with his $800,000 compensation package. Yup, we've all heard of bigger salaries for corporate moguls, in the millions, but I for one could get by nicely on $537,000.
And for those who would object that NIPSCO customers are not forced to use a credit card to pay their bill, or pay online, I invite you to walk a day or two in the shoes of the poor or unemployed. Once again the people least able to afford it are being penalized while their governmental so-called stewards sit by and jaw jack. Sometimes a credit card is the only option. Like when it's a choice between eating or avoiding NIPSCO's outrageous payment fees. And if there's any among you who would argue that poor people shouldn't be affording internet services, go talk to your librarian and learn the truth about waiting lines at libraries to use computers for internet services. Hear how budget cuts to libraries have reduced the number of computers, tech maintenance, etc., and how many government services now require online computer access. Again, walk a day or two in another man's shoes.
As I write, I am looking at a $30 NIPSCO bill. There is not enough money in my checking account to pay it, but if I don't, I risk having my service turned off and being forced to spend $45 for reconnection, plus a potential security deposit in the hundreds of dollars. I can spend 30 minutes going to Krogers who will charge a fee, amount unknown but I'm betting it's close to $6. So I'll pay the $6 fee to NIPSCO, which amounts to a 17% premium.