Angry: Laura Shannon was threatened over a £36.42 bill, which wasn’t hers
Energy suppliers that fail to calculate bills correctly or deliver them on time are no longer allowed to charge customers out-of-the-blue for usage dating back more than 12 months.
This ‘back-billing’ rule from regulator Ofgem, previously voluntary for suppliers, became official in May.
So how did Co-operative Energy mark the moment? By demanding that I pay up for energy used three years ago. I did not use the energy it is claiming for – and I am no longer even a customer.
My separation from Co-operative Energy was documented by The Mail on Sunday back in 2015 after the supplier took four months to let me go. This is despite supplying final meter readings on the day I vacated the property, receiving a final bill and being refunded outstanding credit on my account.
Firmly believing an email from the company in May this year with the subject line ‘Your bill is ready’ to be nothing more than an IT glitch, I paid little attention and forgot about it. But this month I received a more worrying email – from the person who bought my old house all those moons ago.
He forwarded a letter addressed to me from Co-operative Energy threatening legal action over arrears of £36.42.
Apparently if I did not make the payment swiftly, this balance could be passed on to a debt collector – someone whose charges would no doubt outweigh the underwhelming sum being chased.
I was also warned that my credit rating could be impaired and I might be liable for further charges. Even though I know I do not have to pay, I still panic at the idea of a trashed credit rating. I also fear being sucked into a spiral of corporate inefficiency that takes months to rectify and threatens my success in applying for new credit cards, phone deals or mortgages.
And I know many other people who would feel angry like me – but would pay up without quibble. That is wrong. Jumping into action straightaway, a phone call to Co-operative Energy reveals I have not even used the energy it wants me to pay for, regardless of the fact I should not have been billed for it.
A call centre employee explains it is for energy used in May 2015, after I moved more than one hundred miles away. I explain my position and he discusses it with colleagues, then returns saying the debt will be wiped away. How generous. He sounds as if the company is doing me a favour. But there should be no wiping of anything on an account that is obsolete, except maybe my contact details.
But he is just the person on the phone working things out. He did not generate the bill or write the letter, so I resist any temptation to educate him too harshly on the rules.
THE NEW RULE: YOU MUST GET BILL WITHIN 12 MONTHS
The back-billing rule prevents energy providers from charging customers for usage they did not bill for promptly, or did not calculate correctly. There is a 12-month deadline for catch-up bills to be sent out from the point at which gas and electricity was used. After this the supplier has to take the hit for any underpayment.
In the past, some suppliers signed up to this policy voluntarily but did not always adhere to it. So in May, regulator Ofgem stepped in to make the back-billing ban official for all suppliers.
But anyone who already knows they owe money to their energy provider will not have debt written off simply because more than a year has passed. Known-about debt is still due.
The rule does not apply to anyone behaving obstructively either. An extreme example of this would be physically preventing a supplier’s staff from taking meter readings. Microbusinesses are not yet covered unless their suppliers offer it voluntarily, but they will be from November this year.
Instead I ask for confirmation in writing that this matter – and my account – is closed and I will hear no more.
Last week, I asked Co-operative Energy to comment. In a reply which could have come from the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, a spokesman said: ‘As Ms Shannon should never have been liable for the billed amount, this is not a case of back-billing.
‘We are advocates of the back-billing code and its role in ensuring consumers are not unfairly charged for unbilled energy they used more than 12 months ago. We ensure the code is applied in all relevant cases.’
Regardless of technicalities and terminology, consumers should be on the lookout for all unfair charges that do not need to be paid.
And the person who is liable for £36.42 should have been billed three years ago, so does not have to pay either.
Mad Hatters: Co-op’s attitude was ‘Don’t blame us for billing you so late…because we shouldn’t have charged you AT ALL!’
Householders need to be on their guard for unfair catch-up bills. For customers the success of the regulator’s ban relies on two things: knowing about it or never receiving an outdated catch-up bill.
My experience demonstrates the policy itself does not stop erroneous bills being sent.
The onus is still on people to be aware of the rule and to stand up for themselves.
Martyn James, consumer expert at free online complaints-handling service Resolver, says: ‘Back-billing is a massive issue. The threat of debt collectors and damage to credit histories is unfair and applied far too liberally.’
Half of all complaints to Resolver about energy suppliers relate to billing which James calls a ‘damning yardstick’ for how the industry is doing.
He adds: ‘Suppliers seeking the repayment of historic debts without checking their veracity is unacceptable.’
Citizens Advice says suppliers have a bad record on back-billing – often refusing to accept responsibility or ignoring their commitments.
Small businesses are known to have received unexpected late bills running into tens of thousands of pounds.
KEY STEPS FOR TACKLING CATCH-UP ENERGY CHARGES
- Check your bills – paying close attention to dates of usage. CONTACT your supplier first if you have been sent a sudden catch-up bill for energy used more than 12 months ago.
- Remind your provider of their obligations under the back-billing rule.
- Get help if your supplier has not fixed the problem satisfactorily within eight weeks. You can refer your case to independent complaints services such as Resolver or Ombudsman Services. Visit resolver.co.uk or ombudsman-services.org/energy. You can also call the latter on 0330 4401624.
- Find more on the back-billing rule at ofgem.gov.uk and citizensadvice.org.uk. Or call Citizens Advice on 0345 404 0506.
One person who was referred to the Citizens Advice ‘extra help unit’, which assists vulnerable energy customers, was told they owed £1,300 because their supplier had put them on the wrong tariff since 2011.
The charity says it remains to be seen how suppliers will perform now the ban is in place but a spokesman says: ‘Mistakes can still happen so it is important to check your bill to make sure you are not being overcharged. It will say on your bill if the amount is estimated or calculated from your meter, and the period it covers.
‘If you think you have received a catch-up bill from more than a year ago, contact your supplier’s customer service team to ask for a correction.’
He adds that if you need to challenge a bill, do not cancel any direct debits already in place as this could make problems worse.
Ombudsman Services also handles fall-outs between customers and energy suppliers. It has resolved 900 complaints about back-billing since the beginning of the year and 5,122 since August 2016.
A spokeswoman says: ‘If a supplier has not fully satisfied your concerns within eight weeks you can bring your complaint to the Energy Ombudsman who will review your case for free and provide a legally binding resolution.’