I switched to save cash, but energy provider’s mistake saw my bills soar

James Taylor at his desk in his office at 116 High Street, Old Portsmouth.

Those halcyon days when pen and paper just worked!

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Stephen Smith decided he would need to downsize the family home for something a little more modest when he was declared medically unfit to continue working.

Once he and his wife made up their minds to move to Waterlooville, they thought they’d take the opportunity to slash their gas and electricity bills by switching energy providers.

He was floored to find the outstanding balance had soared to more than £1,000

But instead of the anticipated savings, the bills ended up going through the roof.

It all began 15 months ago when the retired former manual worker promptly went on the internet to do a little research and saw an attractive online dual-fuel offer from The Co-operative Energy.

Co-operative Energy consistently receives rave customer service reviews, so without giving it a second thought Stephen signed up.

As part of the switching process he provided current meter readings and previous annual energy usage at his former home. This was required to give Co-operative Energy a basis for estimating quarterly bills for the next 12 months.

Stephen, 58, said: ‘My previous supplier was Scottish Power but that was in a different house. I had no way of knowing what my usage would be and relied on the “experts” to work it out.

‘I filled in the details online with the information I had available. I thought everything was fine.’

Shortly afterwards he received an introductory pack to set up the account, including a variable direct debit.

His expectation was the direct debit method of payment would enable Co-operative Energy to smooth out any seasonal consumption fluctuations.

Initially all appeared to go well and the couple were able to access their account details online.

However the bill for last March was a little disturbing. The account indicated a £600 outstanding balance, but Stephen just put it down to increased winter usage.

He added: ‘When I got the March bill, although it was high they didn’t change the direct debit payment.

‘So I just assumed they’d probably worked out what we were paying would clear the account in the summer.

‘It was the very reason why I chose the direct debit payment because I understood they’d up it if they felt it was needed.’

At about the same time he started to experience problems getting into the online account.

When in June a meter reader turned up, Stephen’s concerns were finally allayed.

There was no further increase in the payments schedule, so he assumed they continued to be adequate to cover the cost of their energy usage and dismissed it from his mind.

However in August, due to a glitch in the system, he was unable to get full access to his online account and was asked to phone in an electricity reading.

He was floored to find the outstanding balance had soared to more than £1,000.

When he picked himself up, Stephen promptly tried to contact the firm to ask why his monthly payments hadn’t gone up to cover their usage.

Initially he couldn’t get hold of anyone or access their online account, so had no idea what was happening.

When he finally got through to the customer service team he was told they’d been having problems with a new computer system which had been installed earlier in the year.

The firm’s annual direct debit payment review scheduled for March hadn’t taken place. The appropriate increase in the payments had just slipped under the radar.

The company told Stephen it could take up to six weeks to get it sorted, but with his bills rocketing by the week and in a state of utter frustration and despair he asked Streetwise if we could help him get it fixed.

We got on to Co-operative Energy and it soon got things sorted.

The company agreed the billing problem had been compounded by its failure to review the payment schedule after the first 12 months.

As a result an excessive balance of £592 had built up on Stephen’s account.

It proposed to credit the account by £331, this being the difference between the actual amounts paid and what should have been paid had the glitzy new computer programme not let them down.

The firm was also adding a further goodwill payment of £100 to compensate for its acknowledged unacceptable response to Stephen’s complaint, slashing the outstanding balance to just £160.

A spokesperson for Co-operative Energy said: ‘Mr Smith’s energy consumption has been much higher than estimated when joining us and so the monthly direct debit amount we originally set up has not been sufficient to cover the cost.

‘We undertake direct debit reviews every 12 months to help our customers avoid under or over payment, and we’re sorry that this didn’t take place on this occasion.

‘We have resolved this issue to Mr and Mrs Smith’s satisfaction and have set up a new direct debit amount that more accurately reflects their usage.’