We’ve all got a lot on our plates at the moment. But there’s little doubt that one issue is concerning millions of people right now. And that’s energy bills.
At Times Money Mentor Towers, we’re being flooded with your questions and complaints about energy firms. Every day I hear frankly horrific stories about energy businesses behaving badly or getting things wrong. And let’s not forget the Times exposé on Friday that showed some energy firms were still forcing people on to prepayment meters despite this directly breaching Ofgem’s rules about more vulnerable people:
So let me be clear. I am outraged by the behaviour of some energy businesses. Many are making public statements about their services and performance that are clearly not borne out by what their customers are experiencing.
So in my column this week, I’m not only going to tell you how to tackle common energy problems, I’m going to cover what the new rules say about your rights and how you can get a complaint resolved.
What energy complaints are people making?
There are lots of things that can go wrong with energy bills and meters. Here are the main complaints that I hear at the moment.
- Billing errors
- Smart meter faults / other meter faults
- Credit balance refunds
- Financial difficulties and vulnerable customers
- Customer service issues
- Back billing
- Not my bill
- Debt collection
By far the biggest source of complaint, billing errors can be everything from the obvious (ludicrously high bills that make no sense) to inaccurate calculations due to an over reliance on estimated bills in the past. Some billing errors are bonkers. For example, don’t assume that accurate meter readings you have provided have been added to your bill. I’ve seen evidence that some energy firms – or their computer systems to be precise – override actual meter readings if they ‘think’ they don’t make sense.
Energy bills are unnecessarily complicated – but you don’t have to become an expert to dispute a bill. If it doesn’t seem right, the business should be explaining how your bill has been calculated in plain English. So ask questions like:
- How is this bill so high over this period?
- Why has my energy usage increased so much?
- How many estimates are you relying on?
- Is this debt balance over 12 months old? (More on that in a mo)
- What tariff am I on and is it your cheapest option?
Be prepared to provide details of your personal situation too. If you don’t work from home, or live by yourself, you should not be using high levels of energy.
It’s the job of your energy company to look in to any faulty meter issues (see below) but they should investigate your complaint fully and respond in writing. Again, if you don’t understand anything in the response ask for this to be clarified.
If the bill still doesn’t seem right, tell the firm you are going to the Energy Ombudsman and ask them to suspend any collections procedures while the matter is being looked in to.
Smart / standard meter errors
Meters can go wrong for all sorts of reasons. Old age, poor connections and maintenance, tampering by third parties, not connecting to Wi-Fi in order to transmit data and many more scenarios. Sadly, the first wave of smart meters fitted a few years ago had a tendency to go wonky, weren’t installed correctly or weren’t transferable to new suppliers. This has left a backlog of meters that need replacing.
Start by reporting your concerns about the accuracy of the meter. You’ll usually be asked to take meter readings every day for a set period – usually seven days. I’d photo your gas and energy meter dials and send the pics to the firm too. Most energy businesses can check pictures for you to see if they match up with the right reading.
If the readings make no sense, it’s for the energy firm to come up with answers and solutions. This should involve sending out engineers to assess the meter’s performance or even a forensic analysis of your bills.
Credit balance refunds
This is the complaint du jour for many people. If like me you’ve racked up a credit balance over summer you might want it back – after all, it’s your money. But how easy is this?
To test this, I asked friends and colleagues to try to get a credit balance refunded with all the main energy firms to see how easy it was. In short: it was a disaster. Some businesses make it hard to get the refund without phoning them up, which in itself can be a lengthy and frustrating process. Others don’t let you request credit balance refunds through their apps or even through their websites. One firm told me they can’t refund a credit balance online if you’ve given a meter reading in the last four weeks. Which is awkward, because, one of my top consumer advice tips about energy bills is… to give a meter reading every four weeks. Which means you’d never get a refund without calling the firm direct.
This is cheeky to put it mildly. Don’t give up. Go on to your computer or laptop first to see if you can get the refund rather than the app which will have limited options. Failing that call the firm and demand your rights. Bear in mind your monthly payment might go up if your credit balance is being factored in for your Winter energy consumption. But don’t take their word for it. Ask them to prove how they are calculating this.
You might want to remind the firm what the regulator says about your right to a refund.
As a general rule, it makes sense to have around two months’ worth of payments in credit to get you through the Winter period, if you chose to ask for a refund.
Financial difficulties and vulnerable customers
If you don’t have enough money to cover an emergency when you’ve paid your essential outgoings each month then you meet the criteria for ‘financial difficulties’. That means the energy firm must come up with solutions that meet your needs.
You’ll need to put together a brief overview of your finances. This basic budget only needs to cover the money you have coming in versus your essential or obligated monthly payments. The energy firm is allowed to ask you for this so they can figure out the best solution to your situation. Make sure you note down if you are worried about losing your job, or a source of money. Have a think about your home situation too. It can help to explain about the needs of your family, who the wage earners are and if anyone has specific needs or could be considered vulnerable or older.
According to Ofgem’s regulations, the energy firm should come up with a tailored plan to meet your needs. You can read what businesses are supposed to do on regulator OFGEM’s website here.
OFGEM says that you can ask for the following:
- A review of your payments and debt repayments
- Payment breaks or reductions
- More time to pay
- Access to hardship funds
- Advice on how to use less energy
- The option to go on the Priority Services Register – a free support service for a wide range of people struggling or who need support.
Customer service issues
Customer service issues are usually ‘supplementary’ to a complaint. It’s not the main issue you contact the business about, but it can become a major part of what’s making you unhappy. Most customer service issues involve:
- Failure to resolve a complaint or help.
- Being unable to contact the firm on the phone.
- Not getting a written response to a complaint.
- The problem not being resolved.
Don’t let poor customer service get your back up. Calmly note down your experiences – bullet points keep you focused. If you have dates and times of calls and the name of the person you spoke to, this can help too.
Ofgem has a number of rules that businesses are supposed to follow about billing their customers. One of the things that they aren’t allowed to do (but still do) is ‘back billing’. If your energy company sends you a new bill that goes back further than 12 months, they should not be charging you for anything other than the last year.
This is for new bills though. If you have an outstanding debt that you were correctly billed for at the time, the business can pursue it for up to six years. However, if you think you’ve not been treated fairly then you should make a formal complaint.
Not my bill
For those who like their complaints dystopian, I hear from far too many readers about bills that have nothing to do with the people being billed. This might be due to errors, fraudsters, computer meltdowns and more. This situation can be doubly frustrating because you might have debt collectors chasing you for bills that are nothing to do with you, but you can’t speak to the business because you are not ‘their customer’. Orwellian, Kafkaesque, pick your favourite dystopian adjective!
If you aren’t getting anywhere on the phone, make a written complaint and tell the debt collectors that a formal complaint is underway and they should speak to their client and take no action while this is investigated. If the energy firm doesn’t sort things out, the Energy Ombudsman awaits.
Energy firms are weirdly in thrall to their computer systems. So you may speak to a helpful person on the phone who assures you your complaint is being investigated, only to get debt collection letters in the post. I’ve spoken to many energy firms who tell me they can switch automated debt collection letters off – so make sure they do!
If you are making a complaint, then tell both the energy business and any external debt collection agency that you are making a formal complaint. Ask them to confirm in writing that the matter will not be pursued while this is investigated with both the energy firm and the Energy Ombudsman. If they refuse, this may support you case when you take it further.
How bad is the situation with energy complaints?
The situation on the ground with energy complaints is shocking. According to Citizens Advice, there’s been a 17% increase in people seeking help with energy debt – and that’s just in the first six months of 2023. According to this research, the average debts were over £1,700. I’m particularly concerned by the fact that 7.8 million people are estimated to have borrowed to pay their energy bills from January to June this year and 8 million are expected to do the same over Winter 2023.
Yet the ‘official’ volume of complaints seems suspiciously small to me. Energy businesses are obliged to report their complaint levels to Ofgem. But there are ways to get round that. To give you an example, I hear from lots of people with ‘boomerang complaints’. This is where you contact a business to register a complaint and are assured it will be dealt with, only to have to call back weeks later when nothing happens. In most boomerang complaints, nothing from the original complaint has been logged.
In other cases I’ve seen, complaints are erroneously logged as ‘enquiries. Some call centres are under pressure to resolve disputes as ‘resolved on the phone’ which may not be true. And, of course, if you can’t contact a business, you can’t register a complaint!
The good news is this behaviour is finally being clamped down on by the regulator.
What are the new complaint rules for energy firms?
Sensing the dissatisfaction from energy users across the UK, Ofgem have just introduced new energy rules. These rules say your energy supplier should:
- Be easy to contact and by different contact methods, for example email and phone at times that meet customer needs
- Offer debt repayment plans at the earliest opportunity and consider offering temporary debt repayment holidays, where appropriate
- Make it easier for consumers to see how good suppliers’ customer service is by publishing information on their Citizens Advice star rating
How to get an energy problem or complaint sorted out
All energy businesses have ‘contact us’ options on their websites. These should include Q&A pages, live chat, phone numbers and social media links. You may be able to do some things online, like submit meter readings. But for complaints, you’ll need to contact someone direct.
If you need help making a complaint, organisations like Citizens Advice may be able to help you. Alternatively ask a friend or neighbour to help you get in touch with an energy firm. Charities like Age UK have support and advice for people too.
If you want to make a complaint, you may find it easier to put it in writing first. Even if you’d rather speak to someone on the phone, writing down some bullet points covering what’s gone wrong can help you stay focused when you make the complaint. Keep things simple and focused on the problems you’d like the business to address. Ask the business if you can email or send them the written complaint if it’s complicated. Don’t forget to tell the business what you want to sort the problem out.
It makes sense to gather up as much evidence as you can find. If you have old bills, letters, photographs of meter readings or other information, save it in one file if you can. I tend to photograph key documents so I have a record in case they get lost. If you make a complaint to the Energy Ombudsman, you’ll be able to upload this information or send it to them.
Above all else, spell out what you want to sort things out. For example:
- Correcting the error, fault or meter issue.
- Correcting your bill.
- Refunding you.
- Compensating for distress, inconvenience and other losses.
That last point is particularly important, because if you don’t give an idea of how much money you are looking for in terms of compensation, won’t be offered anything, or you’ll get an offer so derisory you’ll be even more furious.
The energy business has a maximum of eight weeks from the moment you say ‘complaint’ to sort out the problem in full – no matter how complex it is. They must write to you with their findings. Failing that, they must give you a ‘final decision’ – a letter that sets out their conclusions and why they’ve reached their decision. This must also tell you about your right to go to the Energy Ombudsman.
How the Energy Ombudsman can help
If you’ve received a ‘final decision’ from the energy firm but you’re still not happy with the resolution, the Energy Ombudsman can look at your complaint. The same goes for complaints that have not been sorted out despite eight weeks passing.
It’s really easy to make a complaint online. Just click on this link and follow the step-by-step instructions. The Ombudsman will ask you to explain the problem in your own words and will ask what you would like to sort things out. You’ll also be able to upload supporting documents and photographs too. You can also ask the Ombudsman to consider the time and trouble it has taken to make the complaint. You’ll be able to monitor the progress of your complaint through your online account with the Energy Ombudsman too.
If you’d rather have a chat with the Energy Ombudsman, their phone lines are open Monday to Friday 8am until 8pm and Saturday 9am until 1pm. 0330 440 1624.
Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James