Spiralling fuel bills are right at the centre of the cost of living crisis hitting consumers, with estimates about future energy use increasing the pressure.
Frail 92-year-old Les Roberts leaves son-in-law Charles to handle his money matters, but still wants to stay in the loop and always reads his statements from supplier Octopus Energy, company he has been with for several years.
For his dual fuel account Les has been paying £180 direct debit and in May after a balancing payment it stood at zero.
But then he was recommended to raise his monthly amount to £317.39 and with a possible reduction to £303.70 next summer.
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Charles explains: “Like many of his generation Les always wants to pay his way immediately, seeing such big increases really made him fret.
“I went over the figures and felt the sum was disproportionate compared to the publicised rises in fuel costs and Les’ payment record.
“I’m confident we’re not the only family of carers who have to deal with this kind of thing. This is not about Octopus, but across the board about how companies are dealing with rises.
“I realise too how the debits even out usage costs over a year and increases are recommendations, but I think it could be clearer on the statements.
“Les didn’t realise it was optional and may be other older people especially don’t either, especially those who don’t have someone to watch out for them.
“Also unless you challenge the amount, the increase goes ahead.”
He believes timings could also be improved to make it easier for consumers.
“The direct debit emails go out just before they take the monthly payment, so the amount owed always seems higher,” he adds. “It can make some customers feel more anxious. These emails are probably computer generated but that’s not a sufficient excuse.”
After raising the points with Octopus the company responded quickly confirming Les’ £180 debit amount.
It has also contacted the family to find out what they would prefer to do in future.
Les is on Octopus’s price cap protected standard variable tariff (Flexible Octopus), one where rates have gone up to reflect wholesale costs and Les uses more gas than an average household.
The company suggests a variable payment plan might suit him better. “That way Les would only pay for the energy he had used that month, but it would also mean less predictable payments as his bills would be lower in summer and higher in winter,” said a spokesperson.
“We give 14 days’ notice of any suggested changes. We make it clear in the emails that customers are in control of their payments and include a link to tailor them specifically for this reason. We also created a financial hardship fund (Octo Assist) which we doubled in size to £5m earlier this year to be able to help every customer who is struggling at the moment. The fund has helped 50,000 customers already, and is perfect for people who might be struggling right now.
“We appreciate that it’s a particularly difficult time for people and many have questions about how their direct debits are set.
“We’ve announced a new feature in our customers’ online accounts that will help and give people even more control over their payments.”
Your bills and your rights
Crusader has received other increasing direct debit complaints from consumers.
“Suppliers must take all reasonable steps to set direct debit payments based on current and accurate information about a customer’s consumption, as well as other factors including customer credit balances,” states regulator Ofgem.
“Customers can ask their supplier to refund their credit balance. Suppliers must do so promptly, unless there are reasonable grounds not to and they must explain to the customer why.
“We review all information we receive about supplier behaviour and take action where appropriate.”
Ofgem also expects suppliers to regularly evaluate their customers’ direct debit amounts, to ensure they are accurate and appropriate.
Suppliers are not allowed to increase direct debits simply for the purpose of raising capital.
However it does point out: “Generally suppliers try to average out payments so that these are the same every month, which means that during part of the year a consumer would build up a credit balance as they pay more than they consume, and at other times they would pay less than their consumption, drawing down their credit balance or building up a debt.
“If a customer has requested a refund of a credit balance on their account and is struggling to get it returned by the supplier, they can make a complaint with their supplier. If the customer is not happy with the outcome of the complaint, they can take it to the Energy Ombudsman who will investigate this on their behalf.”