EWON Insights Jul-Sep 2020
Welcome to our July-September issue of EWON Insights. This issue focuses on customer complaints relating to COVID-19, including case studies that illustrate the stress some customers are facing and their need for EWON's assistance. As well as our water, embedded network and behind-the-meter sections, we also look at billing errors resulting from incorrectly installed or operated digital meters, customer complaints relating to owed refunds, and the often misleading marketing of rooftop solar.
COVID-19-induced energy debt poses a huge threat to many customers, especially as government initiatives to assist the newly unemployed and underemployed are inevitably wound back. This is concerning for all of us.
EWON, therefore, welcomed the extension of the Australian Energy Regulator's (AER) revised Statement of Expectations (SoE) to 31 March 2021, particularly with respect to encouraging customers who can pay, to do so, as this will help prevent high debt and stave off long term consequences for both consumers and retailers.
Pleasingly, with respect to our reporting to the AER on energy provider adherence to the SoE, we have only identified a handful of complaints each fortnight where there has been possible misalignment with SoE requirements. This reflects very positively on retailers and their ongoing support for customers who are impacted by COVID-19.
High bill complaints to EWON this quarter have slowly begun to increase, perhaps due to COVID-19 and the fact we are coming out of the winter billing period. Our full year projection is still only 16,800 complaints received compared to 19,370 in FY 2020.
This issue of EWON Insights focuses on customer complaints relating to COVID-19. The case studies in this report illustrate the high level of stress some customers are facing and their need for EWON’s assistance. As well as our water, embedded network and behind-the-meter sections, we also look at billing errors resulting from incorrectly installed or operated digital meters, customer complaints relating to owed refunds, and the often misleading marketing of rooftop solar.
Finally, we are looking forward to our first online Consultative Council Meeting in November where we'll have the opportunity to meet with members and community representatives to discuss consumer protection initiatives during COVID-19.
Energy & Water Ombudsman NSW
Complaints to EWON increased this quarter by 16.6% to 4,373 (up from 3,749 last quarter), due to an increase in complaints from electricity and gas customers. This increase may be due to the easing of COVID-19 government stimulus and subsequent financial pressures on consumers. The continued restrictions on various credit activities by the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) in its Statement of Expectations, together with government stimulus support, are likely contributing factors for the decline in complaints this quarter compared to the same quarter last year.
Electricity: The 3,149 electricity retail complaints we received during the period represent an 18.5% increase on last quarter’s 2,658 complaints. Network complaints decreased by 3.1%; 251 complaints compared to 259 in the previous quarter. Total electricity complaints rose by 15.4% to 3,454 compared to the previous quarter.
Gas: The number of gas retail complaints received during the quarter (673) increased by 29.4% compared with the previous quarter (520). The number of gas network complaints (50) increased by 29 from the previous quarter. At 739, overall gas complaints were 34.1% higher compared to the 551 complaints received last quarter.
Water: The number of water complaints received this quarter (156) decreased by 18.3% compared to last quarter (191).
Exempt entities: We received 111 complaints from embedded network customers this quarter. Of these, 81 were about authorised electricity retailers and 21 about exempt retailers.
The graph below shows an overview of complaint activity from July to September 2020.
Table 1 provides detailed information about the number of complaints received from July to September 2020 compared to the previous four quarters.
Table 1: Electricity complaints opened July to September 2020, including previous quarters Case subject Provider type Jul 20 – Sep 20 Apr 20 – Jun 20 Jan 20 – Mar 20 Oct 19 – Dec 19 Jul 19 - Sep 19 Electricity Exempt retailer 21 12 14 8 9 Electricity Network 251 259 368 235 202 Electricity Retailer 3,149 2,658 3,457 3,764 4,105 Electricity Not allocated 33 63 101 80 100 Electricity Total 3,454 2,992 3,940 4,097 4,416 Gas complaints opened July to September 2020, including previous quarters Case subject Provider type Jul 20 – Sep 20 Apr 20 – Jun 20 Jan 20 – Mar 20 Oct 19 – Dec 19 Jul 19 -Sep 19 Gas Exempt retailer 0 0 0 1 0 Gas Network 50 21 31 42 40 Gas Retailer 673 520 658 755 898 Gas Not allocated 16 10 8 12 11 Gas Total 739 551 697 810 949 Non energy/water complaints opened July to September 2020, including previous quarters Case subject Provider type Jul 20 – Sep 20 Apr 20 – Jun 20 Jan 20 – Mar 20 Oct 19 – Dec 19 Jul 19 -Sep 19 Non-energy/non-water Not allocated 24 15 22 20 9 Non-energy/non-water Total 24 15 22 20 9 Water complaints opened July to September 2020, including previous quarters Case subject Provider type Jul 20 – Sep 20 Apr 20 – Jun 20 Jan 20 – Mar 20 Oct 19 – Dec 19 Jul 19 -Sep 19 Water Network 44 74 85 65 65 Water Retailer 92 99 129 118 142 Water Not Allocated 20 18 24 17 25 Water Total 156 191 238 200 232
Customer complaint issues
Customers identified 7,868 different issues associated with the 4,373 complaints opened this quarter. This was an 8.4% increase on the previous quarter when 7,526 issues were identified.
Disputed high bill complaints numbered 1,717, an increase of 33.6% on the 1,285 received in the previous quarter. This issue continued to be the most significant billing issue, representing 21.8% of all issues raised this quarter.
The significant drop in complaints relating to customer service was noted last quarter and this trend continued this quarter. This decrease was despite the difficulties that retailers encountered due to COVID-19. These numbers reflect well on retailers and their commitment to service customers in difficult times.
We have been monitoring complaints relating to payment difficulties to gauge the impact of the AER Statement of Expectations. We had 207 complaints about payment difficulties which was a slight increase of 17 more complaints than the last quarter. Retailers’ commitments to supporting their customers has been extremely positive, however with government income support reducing and rent and mortgage relief coming to an end, it is expected that payment difficulties will increase next quarter.
Top 10 issues Jul to Sep 2020, including previous four quarters Primary issue Secondary > Tertiary issue Jul - Sep 20 Apr – Jun 20 Jan – Mar 20 Oct – Dec 19 Jul – Sep 19 Billing High > disputed 1,717 (21.8%) 1,285 (17.7%) 1,455 (16.9%) 1,862 (18.4%) 1,731 (16.9%) Customer service Poor service 634 (8%) 604 (8.3%) 726 (8.4%) 1,079 (10.6%) 1,113 (10.9%) Billing Estimation > Meter access / not read 428 (5.4%) 437 (6%) 434 (5%) 513 (5.1%) 412 (4%) Billing Opening / closing account 397 (5%) 395 (5.4%) 385 (4.5%) 466 (4.6%) 513 (5%) Customer service Failure to respond 344 (4.4%) 348 (4.8%) 309 (3.6%) 415 (4.1%) 404 (4%) Customer service Incorrect advice / information 217 (2.8%) 263 (3.6%) 305 (3.5%) 382 (3.8%) 388 (3.8%) Credit Payment difficulties > current / arrears 207 (2.6%) 190 (2.6%) 387 (4.5%) 407 (4%) 451 (4.4%) Credit Collection > credit rating 192 (2.4%) 174 (2.4%) 184 (2.1%) 210 (2.1%) 307 (3%) General Energy / water 180 (2.3%) 139 (1.9%) 207 (2.4%) 189 (1.9%) 176 (1.7%) Billing Meter > fault 170 (2.2%) 115 (1.6%) 114 (1.3%) 167 (1.7%) 144 (1.4%) Total number of issues per quarter 7,868 7,256 8,618 10,138 10,217
Energy complaints and case studies
The breakdown of all electricity and gas complaints by complaint category is shown in the graph and table below.
Table 3 – Complaint breakdown – Energy
Complaint type Number of complaints % of total energy complaints General enquiry 31 0.7% Complaint enquiry 1,464 34.9% Refer to Higher Level 1,989 47.4% Investigated 709 16.9% Total 4,193 100%
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect us all. In the energy market, bills are trending higher as customers spend more time at home, consuming more energy. Added to this, more people are out of work and could be struggling to pay all their bills, not just energy. This has increased pressure on retailers as unpaid or delayed bills affect their cash flow and potentially their viability. To help manage this situation, the Australian Energy Regulator’s Statement of Expectations sets out what retailers are expected to do when customers are experiencing financial difficulty. COVID-19 has also, at times, caused energy and water providers to delay or restrict certain work programs, such as reading meters, which has also affected customers.
The following case studies illustrate the issues that many customers are facing during the pandemic and the response to those issues by providers.
Business badly affected by COVID-19
A customer told EWON that his business had been gravely affected by COVID-19, and he was struggling to pay his bills. He said that the majority of other services he owed money to had agreed to waive a portion of their bills and offered help to pay the rest, however his energy retailer hadn’t offered any financial assistance with the $1000 outstanding on his account. We explained that a debt waiver was not an option but he could set up an affordable payment arrangement.
We spoke to the retailer and it offered to backdate a discount of 18% to the start of September 2019 as well as apply a customer service credit of $100 to the balance. This reduced the outstanding balance from $895 to $565. The retailer also offered a payment plan of $85 per fortnight. The customer confirmed that with the arrears reduced he could afford to pay the bill in full.
Pensioner distressed by estimated meter reads
A customer advised that she was on a pension and had moved premises in November 2019. Her energy retailer had issued her with an estimated bill for approximately $300 for the period January 2020 to April 2020 which she paid. She was advised that the bill had been estimated due to COVID-19. The retailer then issued her with a subsequent bill for $1300 for April 2020 to 27 July 2020. She had never been issued with a bill that high before and her usual bills were approximately $300 per quarter. She queried the amount with her retailer but was told the bill needed to be paid. Stressed because she was unable to afford the bill, the customer cried on the phone while talking to her retailer. At this point she contacted EWON.
The retailer explained to us that the high bill was a catch up due to an underestimation for the previous read. It agreed to refer the customer to its affordability program to pay the bill in smaller installments. When we told the customer about the retailer’s offer, she informed us she had paid her arrears and changed energy retailer.
Retailer supports customer in financial distress
A customer advised that her gas account had arrears owing of $2,842 and that her gas had been disconnected on 28 August 2020 for non-payment. She was experiencing affordability issues and had lost her job due to COVID-19. She wanted her supply to be reconnected and to set up an affordable payment plan for the arrears owing but she had not contacted the retailer.
We spoke to the customer’s retailer and arranged for reconnection. It said that the account balance was $2742, billed to 3 July 2020 and that her fortnightly usage was $67. The retailer told us it had not received any payment for just over 12 months. It referred her to its affordability program to set up a payment plan of $67 per fortnight and said it would consider a lesser amount per fortnight if this was unaffordable. It offered to apply a credit of $119 to her gas account for missed pay-on-time discounts as well as a customer service credit of $100. We told the customer about the offer and provided her with a referral for EAPA assistance.
Unfair conditions placed on assistance
A customer advised that he was recently released from prison, was experiencing financial difficulty and had been affected by COVID-19. He had received an electricity bill from his energy retailer for $728 which was based on an estimated read. He contacted his retailer and asked to be put on an affordable payment plan. The retailer asked the customer for more information about his personal circumstances, in particular the reason why he had been incarcerated. He wasn’t pleased with the request for personal information and felt his retailer had been unhelpful.
We contacted the retailer and it confirmed that the request for information relating to his incarceration was unnecessary and offered him an apology. The retailer offered to contact the customer about a financial assessment and payment plan and offered a $50 credit as a customer service gesture. The customer said he was happy with this outcome and accepted the offer.
Payment plan not provided by retailer
A customer advised that she had been receiving monthly electricity bills from her retailer for 12 months. She lived on her own, used minimal appliances and did not believe the bills reflected her power use. She said she had contacted her energy retailer in April 2020 to complain about her high bill and advised that she was unemployed due to COVID-19. She said she was seeking assistance and a payment plan but was told that the billing was correct, a response she was unhappy with.
We spoke to the retailer and it agreed to reduce the balance to $150 and negotiate a payment plan. It pointed out that monthly billing on an old meter would always generate estimates and offered to replace the meter so that she could receive actual reads each month.
Debt referred to collection agency
A customer closed his account in March 2020 and told the retailer that he would set up a payment plan once he received his final bill. He told EWON that he did not receive a bill but was contacted by SMS with a demand for payment of $4,849. He was shocked at how high the bill was and so contacted his retailer and was told that the debt was being transferred to a credit collection agency, and so nothing could be done. He asked to have the debt returned to the retailer and to have a payment plan put in place. He told EWON that he wasn’t given the opportunity to set up a payment plan and was concerned that the referral of the debt to a collection agency would adversely affect his credit record.
An EWON investigation established that he had closed the account and a final bill had been sent soon after by email. The retailer also said the final billed accounts were referred to a third party to assist with following up on the debt and, as the third party was working for the retailer, it had not sold the debt. The retailer offered to provide a copy of the final bill and offered a 12 month repayment plan of $404 per month and said that if there were COVID-19 circumstances, it would consider further options. When informed of these options the customer explained that his family had very limited income as his wife had lost her job and he was waiting on a compensation settlement. He could only afford $20 per fortnight. We explained this to the retailer who then agreed to place a hold on the account for 12 months and agreed to a$20 per fortnight payment and to renegotiate a new payment plan after 12 months.
Embedded network case studies
This quarter we opened 111 complaints from embedded network customers. These customers were complaining about a range of energy service providers:
- Authorised energy retailers: 81
- Exempt electricity sellers: 20
- Authorised gas retailers: 6
- Licenced water provider: 1
- Licenced Electricity Network: 1
- Gas (Not Allocated): 1
- Electricity (Not Allocated): 1
EWON closed 108 complaints from customers whose electricity or gas is supplied through an embedded network in the quarter.
Top issues for embedded network complaints received Jul-Sep 2020
Complaint issues Cases Billing > High > Disputed 52 Customer service > poor service 12 Billing > Tariff > rate 10 Customer services > Failure to respond 10 Billing > Delay 9 Billing > Fee and charges > Service availability 9 Billing > Period 7 General > Energy/water 7 Credit > Payment difficulties > Current/arrears 6 Billing > Backbill 6 Billing > Opening/closing account 6
Difficulty with changing retailer
Customers whose electricity and gas are provided through an embedded network have difficulty changing retailers. The case study and issues discussed below illustrate the complexity involved when customers seek to change retailers for embedded networks.
The customer’s electricity is provided through an embedded network. She told EWON that she contacted her retailer and advised she wanted to leave the embedded network.
She felt that both the embedded network and her preferred retailer did not provide a clear explanation about how to change retailers and believed that both retailers were not adhering to their obligations to allow customers to choose their retailer.
We referred the matter to the retailer for resolution at a higher level and advised the customer that she could return to EWON if an agreed outcome could not be reached.
Similar complaints received by EWON
EWON has received similar complaints from other customers whose electricity or gas is provided through an embedded network. Their main concern is two-fold - it is difficult to leave their current retailer and find another retailer that can provide services to a customer of an embedded network. Customers have raised concerns about the limited retailer options that exist in an embedded network. In addition, customers tell us that the main reason that they would like to change retailers is because of high bills.
Some customers contacted us to obtain general information about embedded networks. In addition, many told us that they only became aware of the embedded network after moving in. Some customers felt that the retailers responsible for embedded networks should provide more information about changing retailers. This highlights the importance of customers being properly informed about embedded networks and how to change retailers, such as information about installing a new meter and potential costs.
Marketing of behind-the-meter products
Many energy retailers now offer customers a range of behind-the-meter products with more affordable energy and environmental benefits. These services can be offered as stand-alone products or bundled together with electricity and gas plans that are designed to enhance the benefits of behind-the-meter technology. These additional products help to engage the customer with the retail energy market, increase energy affordability and help foster relationships between retailers and customers.
Behind the meter products include technologies such as solar, battery energy storage systems, electric vehicle charging products, energy management systems and software, and other emerging products and services for homes and businesses (Clean Energy Council)
Behind-the-meter technologies are complex products, and in order for customers to make informed decisions about these services, they need to understand how suitable the technology is for their personal circumstances, and also how these products interact with the retail energy market. Retailers must balance their role of educating customers on the benefits of behind-the-meter products, with setting realistic expectations for the financial returns that the customer will receive. It is critical that customers are also provided with easy-to-understand information about the way that solar energy plans work. For example, solar feed-in tariffs are usually set at a variable rate which can be subject to change after the customer accepts the initial energy offer. Variable feed-in tariffs can be a vexed issue for customers who make the decision to invest in a rooftop solar system after speaking with their energy retailer.
Behind-the-meter products offered by energy retailers are now also a significant contributing factor to many of the complaints made to EWON. These complaints are complex because the sale and installation of the behind-the-meter product is outside of EWON’s traditional jurisdiction. These products are regulated separately to the contract the customer has with their energy retailer and come with different consumer protections – including external dispute resolution. From the customer’s point of view, it is not clear why they cannot complain about the marketing of a behind-the-meter product and the billing of their energy account to a single dispute resolution service, when the two products appear to be inextricably linked.
Customer expectations not met by rooftop solar
A customer purchased a rooftop solar PV system through her energy retailer. She advised EWON that she was told she could expect her electricity bills to reduce from $1,100 per quarter to around $250 per quarter. The retailer explained that this reduction would include credits of up to $850 per quarter for the solar energy generated by the rooftop system. Based on this advice, she agreed to pay $420 a month over two years for the installation of the rooftop solar system. The customer complained to EWON that she had read her first electricity bill after the system had been installed, and her bills had not reduced in the way she expected. She told us that she felt mislead by the retailer’s solar marketing team.
We referred the matter to the retailer for resolution at a higher level. The customer returned to EWON after she was told by the retailer that she should not have been promised such a large reduction in her bills. We spoke to the retailer which then offered to increase the feed-in tariff (c/kWh) for the solar energy she exported to the grid and to increase the discount on her energy usage. The customer declined the offer because it did not make up for the benefits, she had been led to expect from her rooftop solar system. We then contacted the retailer for further clarification, and it offered to provide a customer service gesture of $250 to resolve the complaint. The retailer also offered to have a member of its solar team contact the customer to discuss the best solar plan going forward. The customer declined because she wanted the retailer to commit to its original promise that her quarterly billing would be around $250 and informed us that she would pursue the matter in another forum.
Verbal energy plan offer withdrawn after solar system installed
A customer told EWON that he agreed to purchase a rooftop solar system from his retailer based on its offer for an initial 24 month energy plan with a set rate for energy usage at $0.30 per kWh (peak, off-peak and shoulder rates) and a service availability charge (SAC) of $0.86 per day. The retailer also offered a 14% discount on his electricity usage and a 10% discount on his gas usage. The retailer further explained that the energy plan would continue once his rooftop solar system had been installed, and that a solar feed-in tariff of $0.25 per kWh could be added to the plan. After the installation had been completed, the customer contacted the retailer to ensure that the feed-in tariff of $0.25 per kWh was added to his energy plan. He said he made multiple calls to the retailer and spoke to a range of agents before he was able to confirm that the agreed feed-in tariff would be added to his contract, but he couldn’t confirm whether he would receive the agreed discount. Eventually, the customer was told that the original offer could not be provided and was instead offered a plan for energy usage at $0.31 per kWh, SAC for $0.92 per day and a 3% discount on his usage. He was also offered a feed-in tariff of $0.27 per kWh. The customer refused the offer as he felt it left him worse off.
He complained to us and we referred the matter to the retailer for resolution at a higher level. He then returned to us as the complaint remained unresolved. We contacted the retailer to obtain further information about the plans that had been offered, and we were advised that the quotes given to the customer initially were only valid for a limited time. We were informed that his rooftop solar system had been installed, and his account transferred to the retailer months after the original quote had expired. We then reviewed the voice recording of the initial agreement made with the customer and confirmed the retailer had in fact offered a feed-in tariff of $0.25 per kWh in addition to the discounts he was originally offered. Based on our assessment of the benefits of the original offer, we negotiated with the retailer to provide a fair and reasonable resolution. The retailer offered to provide the customer with a 24-month energy plan with a 1% discount, a usage rate of $0.30 per kWh, a feed-in tariff of $0.25 per kWh and a SAC of $0.86 per day. The retailer also offered to provide a $500 credit to his account which we calculated to be more than what he would have received as a discount of 14% for the 12-month period, and this amount also included a customer service gesture. The customer was provided with the offer in writing with the option to contact the retailer directly to accept the outcome.
Meter providers, retailers and customers
It has been three years since metering competition was opened up in NSW. Initially, complaints to EWON about digital meters were driven by installation delays following installation of rooftop solar systems. However, this type of complaint has declined over the last 12 months, which indicates that retailers have responded to the initial demand for new meters, and the new required timeframes for responding to meter installation requests are having a positive effect.
As high bills are the main driver of complaints to EWON, it is probably no surprise that while we are seeing fewer complaints about metering delays, we are now seeing more complaints about billing errors made by metering providers. In the past, complaints to EWON about electricity bills would commonly involve metering services and data provided by the local network – which was a member of EWON. Under the power of choice reforms, the entity providing the metering services and data is not required to be a member of EWON, and therefore we cannot directly investigate a complaint about the conduct of the meter provider. However as the metering provider is an agent of and acting on behalf of the retailer, in accordance with EWON’s Charter, complaints are registered against the retailer. The following two case studies highlight how the conduct of the metering provider can impact the customer’s billing and cause a downstream complaint to EWON.
Meter data provider mislabels data stream
A customer advised EWON that her electricity bills were consistently higher than expected. Her energy retailer had installed a digital meter seven months earlier to help identify the reasons for her high electricity consumption. Following the change of electricity meter, she was notified that her off-peak electricity had been changed from the controlled load 1 (CL1) tariff to the controlled load 2 (CL2) tariff even though she had not requested this change. The customer complained about this to her retailer and her bills were subsequently cancelled and rebilled multiple times, which she found extremely confusing.
We contacted the retailer to obtain further information. The retailer reviewed the account billing and said it appeared, based on the meter data, that the three channels on the digital meter used to record the individual data streams for domestic consumption, off peak and solar generation export, had been mislabelled. The retailer noted that it would need to request the meter data provider to correct the wrongly labelled channels before the customer’s billing could be reviewed. After further investigation, the retailer advised us that the bills issued to the customer after the installation of the digital meter were incorrect due to the mislabelling. This meant that the customer’s off-peak consumption had been billed as domestic consumption, and she had not actually been billed for domestic consumption at all. The retailer also advised us that the meter data provider had erroneously changed the customer’s off-peak tariff to CL2 at the time the digital meter was installed. The retailer noted that the customer had contacted it twice to complain about the change to the off peak tariff, however, the retailer’s staff had sent two incorrect service orders to the meter data provider and therefore the issue remained unresolved. Following our investigation, the retailer resolved the complaint by reversing the change in the customer’s off-peak tariff, correcting the labelling of the data stream channels on the customer’s digital meter, and providing a credit of $1,009.59, which included a customer service gesture for the customer’s poor experience.
Digital meter fails to record solar electricity
A customer installed a rooftop solar system and her electricity retailer completed the installation of a digital meter one month later. She decided to transfer to a new energy retailer one month after the digital meter had been installed. The customer complained that the first bill from her new retailer did not include credits for electricity generated and exported to the grid. The new retailer investigated the billing and advised her that the digital meter had not been configured to record the solar export from her home at the time of installation. It arranged for the meter data provider to reconfigure the meter for solar export and to include the solar credits on the customer’s bills from that date. The customer complained to EWON that due to the metering error made by her previous retailer, she had missed out on solar export credits from the time the digital meter was installed.
We contacted the customer’s previous retailer to request further information about the installation. It confirmed that the digital meter was not correctly configured to record the solar energy exported from her rooftop solar system. It offered to waive the consumption charges billed from the time the digital meter was installed, up until the customer transferred to the new retailer, and offered to provide her with a customer service gesture of $150. The customer accepted the retailer’s offer of a total credit and refund of $243 as a resolution to the complaint.
Customers impacted by incorrect refunds from energy retailers
In an environment where many customers are experiencing financial strain due to the impact of COVID-19, refund errors made by energy retailers cause increased distress.
These errors include customers that were incorrectly informed an account was in credit, only to realise that they in fact owed money to the retailer. When an account is rebilled, it may appear initially to be in credit, but once the account the rebilling is complete, customers often owe money to the retailer. This can be made worse when a retailer informs a customer that they were overcharged and entitled to a refund, or in some cases the retailer processes a refund for a customer, but after the account is rebilled, the customer is left with an outstanding account to pay.
Errors may also arise where a customer requests a payment plan but a direct debit is processed for the full amount, leaving the customer short of funds for other essential payments such as rent. Delays in processing the refund can make the situation even worse for the customer.
Customer incorrectly advised of $3,512 account credit
A customer advised that he received an email from his energy retailer on 17 June 2020 regarding an overcharge for the period 14 September 2018 to 13 June 2019. He was advised $3,512 was owed to him on a closed account and told to contact the retailer for a refund. He did this, however the retailer could not locate the email, so the customer had to resend it. On 18 June 2020, the retailer advised it would investigate the issue and contact him. He contacted the retailer again on 24 June 2020 as he had not received a reply and the retailer’s representative advised it did not have the authority to approve the refund and did not offer another solution.
The customer felt frustrated and complained to EWON. The retailer told us that the first email regarding the credit of $3,512 had been issued in error. It further advised that the customer owed $416 following the rebilling of the account. The retailer offered to waive this amount, however the customer didn’t think this was correct as he had originally been told that he had been overcharged.
When we asked about details of the rebilling and outstanding balance, the retailer advised that three bills had been cancelled and re-issued after receiving new consumption data for the period of 13 June 2019 to 14 March 2020. Further, a credit had been applied to the customer’s account due to incorrect time-of-use billing during daylight savings, which left the customer owing $416. However, due to the poor customer service, the retailer offered to waive the balance, which the customer reluctantly accepted. He still felt the retailer should honour its original offer of a $3,512 refund, but we had no basis to take that part of the complaint further.
Direct debit error leaves customer with no money for rent
A customer advised her energy retailer that she needed to disconnect the electricity at her property and close her account as she was moving. As she had limited income, she arranged a payment plan for the outstanding bill. When the customer went to pay her rent, she realised the retailer had withdrawn the full amount owing of $330 from her bank account leaving her without any funds. When she contacted her retailer, she was told that she would be refunded and could then make her payment in installments, as previously agreed. She spoke with three different customer service representatives over three weeks regarding the refund. During this time, the retailer took another $99 from her account for the disconnection when she left her property. The customer did not receive a notification or a bill for this fee so she approached EWON.
After we spoke with the energy retailer, it apologised for the delay and provided a refund for $238, which represented the amount that it had debited in error. The retailer also provided a customer service gesture of $198. The retailer advised the customer to make contact if she required a payment plan for the outstanding balance.
Water complaints and case studies
The number of water complaints received this quarter (156) decreased by 18.3% compared to last quarter (191), and by 32.8% compared to the corresponding period in 2019 (232).
High bills continue to be the biggest issue for water customers who contact us. Other complaints about water providers relate to customer service and the maintenance of network assets, as seen in Table 4 below.
Table 4 — Water top 5 issues Jul to Sep 2020, including previous quarters
Primary and secondary issue Jul-Sep 20 Apr-Jun 20 Jan-Mar 20 Oct-Dec 19 Jul-Sep 19 Billing > High > Disputed 34 40 44 42 50 General > Energy/water 32 30 32 30 31 Customer service > Failure to respond 20 26 28 33 29 Customer service > poor service 13 25 33 38 34 Land > network assets > maintenance 12 17 14 27 18
The graph and table below show the breakdown of water complaints during the quarter,
Table 5 - Complaint breakdown - Water - Jul-Sep 2020
Complaint type Number of complaints Total % General enquiry 91 58.3% Complaint enquiry 3 1.9% Refer to Higher Level 51 32.7% Investigated 11 7.1% Total 156 100%
High bills and affordability
This case study highlights the complexity of high bill complaints, which involve the interaction of bills, vacant premises and the importance of financial assistance.
A customer complained to EWON that her water bills were higher than expected. She told us that the property had been vacant for two years, yet she had received a six-monthly bill of $446 for the period 17 December 2019 to 17 June 2020. She mentioned that someone had squatted at the premises for three days during the billing period and was then evicted. She also told us she was struggling to pay her bills and wanted to clarify that only Service Availability Charges were included in the billing total.
An EWON investigation established that there had only been 1 kilolitre of water consumed at the supply address since 2017 and the customer had been billed for the consumption and for Sewer and Water Availability Charges for the period 12 December 2019 to 17 June 2020. We explained that customers will always be billed for supply charges, regardless of consumption. After we spoke to the provider, it offered a payment plan through its customer assistance program, with fortnightly payments and the option of making payments for either a 24 or 36-month period.
Similar complaints received by EWON
We have received similar complaints from other customers. Some customers made enquiries about bills that included periods when the premises were vacant. Some customers also told us that they were struggling to afford to pay their bills and have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, so wanted to set up a payment plan. These cases highlight the importance of customers being aware of assistance programs and payment plans which may assist with their financial situations.
Unknown causes of overflows
It can be difficult to identify and fix causes for overflows, which can become an ongoing problem for customers.
A customer advised EWON that he had lived at his premises for 17 years and had been experiencing sewage overflows about two to three times per year. Whenever this occurred, he contacted his water provider to flush out the line. In June 2020, the provider sent an inspection team to examine soil samples to determine if the overflow was entering a creek. He was advised that the sewage was blocked at the lowest point on the street (at the customer’s property), however the team could not determine what the specific issue was. The customer was told the complaint would be escalated; however the provider did not advise of any further action. He was concerned that the problem needed to be fixed properly to prevent it from occurring again. We referred the matter to the provider for resolution at a higher level with the customer’s acceptance knowing that he could return to EWON if he was unhappy with the outcome.
Similar complaints received by EWON
We have received similar complaints from customers about overflows or leaks, with unknown causes, which require an examination of the infrastructure. This highlights the need for customers to be aware of the steps that they can take once overflows or leaks are identified, to fix the problem and prevent any future overflows or leaks.