Energy bills are something of a mystery for most people. It’s not always easy to know what you’re being charged for or how the bill was worked out.

I’ve become increasingly concerned in recent months that many people are assuming that expensive bills are correct because they are expecting big increases due to the rise in wholesale energy prices.

However, energy firms do make mistakes and billing errors were the most common cause of complaint before the current energy crisis. So if your bill doesn’t seem right, or your energy consumption feels off, here’s what to do.

If your bill seems too high

If your bill jumps significantly without reason, then you need to do a bit of detective work with the business.

Firstly, report the meter or readings as faulty. If your energy supplier has been working off estimates for a long time or not recording your readings, then you may be able to appeal the bill even if the meter turns out to be working properly. Go through your bills and check when the meter was last read either by the business or from a reading you provided. There’ll be a code on your bill that explains what the readings are.

If you or your energy provider suspect the meter might be faulty, they may ask you to provide daily meter readings for seven days to see if there’s an obvious problem. But ultimately, if the readings make no sense, it’s for the energy firm to sort out the problem. This can involve sending out engineers to assess the meter’s performance or even a forensic analysis of your bills.

It makes sense to photo your meter whenever you read it so you have a backup – and with prices so high, to give a reading to the energy firm whenever you can. But if all else fails, you can make a formal complaint to the business and go to the Energy Ombudsman if they don’t sort things out.

Back billing

Sometimes businesses are not allowed to bill you for certain things… but do anyway. One of the biggest problems is ‘back billing’. This is a pretty complicated to explain, but here goes! If an energy firm realises it’s made a mistake or relied on wrong readings and issues a bill that goes back over a year, they are only allowed to charge you for only for the most recent 12 months. Anything over that should not be charged – and even then, you can dispute the remainder if you don’t think it’s fair or accurate.

That’s not a free pass on old debts 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.

Credit balances

Astoundingly, energy businesses held £1.8 billion in credit from their customers over the last year. They don’t always make it clear, but if you want your credit back you are entitled to ask for it. Despite this, I’ve been contacted by lots of readers who have reported problems in getting their hands on their credit balances.

Do a bit of research before you phone up though.  Your current monthly direct debit might incorporate using some of your credit balance, so you could find that you pay more if you request the balance back over the coming months.

However, some people have told me that they are simply fed up with extending a source of credit to energy firms and are requesting their cash back out of frustration. If you do this, just make sure that you save the money somewhere securely and only use it to pay off your energy bill if your finances are tight.

The Energy Ombudsman

The Energy Ombudsman is a free alternative to the courts that you can go to if the business does not resolve your complaint. You have to go through the dispute resolution process with the energy firm first though.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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