Extortionate energy bills that land on the nation’s doormats this spring may not be solely due to soaring gas prices. Customer service blunders have left some households facing erroneous demands for hundreds of pounds and threats of bailiffs if they contest them.
Last year, 40% of energy complaints made to Citizens Advice concerned inaccurate billing, it says. According to the charity, companies are “failing in their most basic obligation to customers”.
Inadequate IT systems, faulty meters and mismatched accounts are to blame for thousands of inaccurate charges at a time when gas and electricity bills are set to rise by 51%, following the price cap review in April.
One Cash reader, Ali Shearer, was stunned to open a final demand of £1,000 from Scottish Power. He’d received no previous bills from the company because he had never been a Scottish Power customer.
“It started with a man arriving at the door to read the meter,” he says. “He told me he had the wrong meter number for the house and that he’d deal with it. Unbeknownst to me, he was from Scottish Power, not SSE, which has supplied my energy since 2010.”
Shearer’s numerous attempts to convince Scottish Power that he was not a customer were ineffective. Over the next nine months, he received letters and a visit from two debt collection companies. Last month two bills for £1,700 and £1,729 arrived in the same week, addressed to “Owner/Occupier”. Only after the Observer contacted Scottish Power did the firm discover that Shearer was being billed for the electricity consumption of a nearby water pumping station.
“We should not have pursued him for this debt. We have apologised and agreed a gesture of goodwill,” it says.
Scottish Power customers Douglas and Karen Wilson were perplexed when the monthly direct debit for their one-bedroom flat was raised by 20% to £171 in late 2020. They checked their online electricity account, which said they were £800 in credit. When they applied for a refund they were told they actually owed £1,200.
“A monthly direct debit of £82 was agreed until the anomaly was resolved,” says Douglas. “The resolution was to be an official meter reading, but the pandemic precluded a site visit, so the problem was kicked down the road.”
Four months later, Scottish Power increased the direct debit to £233 without warning. It closed the Wilsons’ complaint without notifying them, and passed their account to a debt collection agency. Last month, the agency demanded an immediate payment of £930.
“The letter from the debt collectors threatened action unless we paid by the day before the letter reached us,” says Douglas. “I attempted to contact Scottish Power but couldn’t get through on the helpline. They take up to five days to respond to emails and we’re worried about sheriff officers turning up at the door and demanding access with menace.”
An investigation by the Observer exposed years of error on the part of Scottish Power. The company admitted that the Wilsons’ electricity meter had packed up in 2017 and failed to record consumption for 18 months.
Oblivious to the cause, Scottish Power assumed the couple’s energy use had plummeted to near zero and refunded the £1,600 they’d paid for the period. The meter was replaced in 2019 and a blunder meant that the day readings were transposed with cheaper night ones so the Wilsons continued to be undercharged. The shock bills were a belated attempt to make up the shortfall.
Scottish Power says: “We’re sorry for the meter issues Mr Wilson has faced over the past few years and the customer service he has received trying to get this resolved.
“The amount he was paying was not reflective of his actual usage which resulted in a debt accruing on his account. However, we should not have deadlocked his account whilst we were investigating these issues. In recognition of the time it has taken us to resolve the issues we have withdrawn £532 from Mr Wilson’s outstanding balance.”
Scottish Power was fined £18m in 2016 after the energy regulator Ofgem identified serious failings with its customer service and its billing system. According to complaints received by the Observer and reviews on Trustpilot, errors persist.
Ovo customers have also endured years of inaccurate bills after being subsumed by the energy giant SSE. In 2020 the company agreed to pay £8.9m into a redress fund after Ofgem ruled that it had prioritised business expansion over customer service. It promised to ensure the mistakes were not repeated.
However, last month it informed blind 81-year-old customer John McKenna that his electricity account was £993 in arrears, having increased his monthly direct debit from £14 to £236 without warning. The customer’s bills had been based on estimated readings for seven years, despite visits by agents to read the meter, and his requests for an accurate bill had gone unheeded.
Ovo discovered last October that his meter had stopped recording his electricity consumption back in 2014 and so he’d only been billed for standing charges since then. As energy customers are not allowed to charge customers for unbilled energy dating back more than 12 months, the £993 was Ovo’s guesstimate of the previous year’s costs. Ovo admitted a series of errors when the Observer intervened and agreed to waive the £933 arrears as a goodwill gesture.
Complaints website Resolver says energy complaints rose 21% last month and a third were from vulnerable customers. “When people are concerned about making ends meet, they tend to scrutinise their bills closely,” says Resolver’s Martyn James. “Massive bills, over short periods, that can’t possibly be right is a strong trend – as are complaints about how they are being investigated.”
Ofgem says: “Protecting customers is our top priority and we regularly engage with all domestic suppliers to ensure they are treating customers fairly and providing reasonable customer service.”