Reflect

July - September 2020

The Ombudsman's view

"Disappointingly, cases about high bills, billing errors, concessions and grants, payment difficulties and poor customer service have increased in the July to September quarter"

Since March 2020, EWOV has been tracking 'pandemic-related' cases to help bring more clarity to what's going on for customers. We've used our case insights to contribute to consultation processes and inform the support initiatives of government and regulators.

In this space, high bills, billing errors, concessions and grants, payment difficulties and poor customer service have come up most commonly. Disappointingly, cases about each of these issues increased in the July to September quarter. Our feature article, Making life in lockdown even harder, looks at how these issues have been affecting customers.

Often, the customer's concerns were able to be addressed through our Assisted Referral of them back to a higher-level contact within their energy or water company. This highlights the importance of companies doing more to address these types of issues when they're first raised by customers.

Going forward, the additional targeted reforms for residential and small business customers recently introduced by the Essential Services Commission (ESC) will play a key role. ESC media release

Another important development is the ESC's new guide for embedded network operators. Launching the guide in mid-October, the ESC recognised EWOV's role in highlighting the gap in the level of guidance, support, and information available to embedded network operators. ESC media release

The big picture

  • From July to September 2020, EWOV received 5,954 cases, up 25% from the previous quarter.
  • The main driver was a 46% increase in billing cases.
  • Electricity billing cases were up 35%.
  • Gas billing cases were up 71%. 

Relevant to trends we're seeing as we progress through COVID-19 lockdown:

  • High bill cases (898) were up 139%.
  • Billing error cases (593) were up 30%.
  • Billing cases related to concessions (330) were up 57%.
  • Credit cases about payment difficulties (346) were up 16%.
  • Customer service cases (222) were up 57%.

The increases contrast with the falls we reported in the last issue of Reflect. Under 'Issues Watch' we explore some of these case trends and the customer experiences driving them.

We're also watching a 54% increase in supply cases. 

  • Cases about unplanned outages (135) were up 88%.
  • Cases about planned outages (132) were up 53%.

Disclaimer 

  • Reflect and Data Hub data is a 'live' view of case data up to the end of the previous period.
  • Cases can sometimes be amended, reopened and reallocated -- adjustments made to cases in previous quarters will be shown in the previous quarter's figures within the visualisations.
  • For these reasons, there may be discrepancies between previous quarter data presented in the visualisations and the information presented in past editions of Reflect.

Issues watch

Outreach

Despite lockdown restrictions, we've continued EWOV's outreach work, adopting a mix of approaches.  

After the lockdown of the housing towers in early July, we provided information on energy and water issues (including availability of interpreter services) to the cultural groups, financial counsellors and legal centres supporting the residents. Our aim was to raise awareness of how important it was for customers in those buildings to contact their energy and water companies, if they weren't going to be able to maintain their existing payment arrangements or pay their bills. More generally, we've also provided flyers for inclusion in emergency relief packages, and posters to be put up in St Vincent De Paul stores across Victoria as restrictions ease.

In the last three months, we've delivered virtual information sessions to over 450 people. These have been focused on complaint trends, customer rights and responsibilities, and EWOV's role. Local councils have been a particular focus because of their extensive involvement in programs that reach seniors, young families, people in need of emergency relief packages, and culturally and linguistically diverse communities. We've also delivered sessions to scheme participants. These have focused on emerging issues, the needs of vulnerable customers, and on raising awareness of the broader role EWOV plays in engaging with community and government stakeholders.

Customer stories

Solar panels working, but credits missing

BILLING ERROR | CONFUSING REBILLING | BEST OFFER
Case number: 2020/9358

Mr P complained that, even though he'd installed solar panels in January 2019, his electricity bills were still high. He said his electricity retailer acknowledged a billing error, but he couldn't understand how the error was corrected, how much his account was in credit and why, if he was in credit, he still received bills. When Assisted Referral didn't resolve the complaint for Mr P, we opened an Investigation.

EWOV's Technical Consultant reviewed Mr P's accounts. He found that the meter at Mr P's property was configured for solar, that he was exporting more than he was drawing from the grid, and that his solar export been billed correctly.

The retailer confirmed the meter at Mr P's property was configured for solar in February 2019. It said his solar system had generated solar credits of $645.30 between February 2019 and May 2020, but these hadn't been applied to his account. It said the incorrect invoices had now been withdrawn and reissued, in line with the Energy Retail Code's nine-month limit on backbilling, and that Mr P's account was in credit for $377.09. Responding to further questions, the retailer advised that Mr P wasn't on its 'best offer' for his usage and circumstances. We explored with the retailer other tariff and payment options which may benefit him.

The retailer apologised to Mr P and credited his account with a customer service payment of $250. Following a further data review, it provided another credit of $41.30. This left his account $668.39 in credit. It offered him a better plan with estimated savings of $100 a year, based on his current usage. Mr P was satisfied with the outcome of our Investigation. The complaint was closed.

Surname mismatch affects application of concessions

RECENTLY UNEMPLOYED | DELAYED CONCESSIONS | REMINDER NOTICES
Case numbers: 2020/9289 & 2020/9293

Having lost her job due to COVID-19, Ms W was on Centrelink benefits. She said that in early June 2020, she asked for her concession details to be applied to her energy accounts. She was told this could happen and her current bill would be amended. Two weeks later, she received a reminder notice and advice that she was at risk of debt collection action. She rang her energy retailer again. She was told her concessions would be backdated to March 2020. She was also promised an amended bill. She then received a letter from the retailer saying concessions couldn't be applied — because the spelling of her name in its system wasn't the same as it was in the Department of Health and Human Services' records. When Assisted Referral didn't resolve the complaint for Ms W, we opened an Investigation.

The retailer confirmed that its attempt to apply concessions to Ms W's accounts failed the validation process, due to 'surname mismatch'. It said that, until it tried to help Ms W with this, it was unaware of the misspelling. Once this was resolved, the retailer applied concessions to both accounts, backdated them and re-billed her.

After rejecting several customer service payment offers from the retailer, Ms W accepted two credits —$200 to her electricity account and $150 to her gas account. The retailer apologised that Ms W had received the reminder notice when her account was supposed to be on hold. It confirmed that she was now receiving both the Annual Concession (electricity) and the Winter Energy Concession (gas) backdated to March 2020. The complaint was closed.

Disputing the health implications of Smart Meters

OFFICE OF HOUSING TENANT | CONFUSION OVER METERING RESPONSIBILITIES
Case number: 2020/9967

Mr E, a public housing tenant, complained about the placement of five Smart Meters on the external wall next to his bedroom. He said the meters were constantly communicating with the 5G towers, affecting his health. He wanted a shield around the meters, or the meter box relocated. When Assisted Referral didn't resolve the complaint for Mr E, we opened an Investigation.

Mr E's retailer acknowledged his concerns, but said that the meters weren't 5G-compatible, so they couldn't communicate with 5G towers. It explained that a request for meter relocation would have to come from the Office of Housing (OOH) as the owner of the property. The work would need to be carried out by the local electricity distributor at OOH's expense.

Alternatively, the local distributor could remove the communications module from the meter for Mr E's unit only, preventing it from communicating remotely, but leaving the other meters unchanged. However, that would mean the meter would have to be read manually, and a fee would apply. Mr E could contact the local distributor directly to discuss this option, but he'd need to provide a medical certificate to support that the removal was for health reasons. The retailer wouldn't agree to install electromagnetic shielding around the meters. 

We explained to Mr E that, as he wasn't the owner of the property, the meters couldn't be relocated at his request — the request would have to come from OOH. We advised that, based on EWOV's experience, it would be unlikely that a distributor would install shielding around a meter or metering panel, especially where EMF is within the allowable limits. We shared with Mr E information about the requirements for Smart Meters in Victoria set out by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).

Mr E maintained that the scientific evidence was outdated, and the advent of Smart Meters had changed things. He sought a range of technical information about meter communications. We suggested that he contact the local distributor with these questions. The complaint was closed.

Elderly customer puts up with loss of heating

GAS HEATING | MULTIPLES OUTAGES | GSL OWED
Case number: 2020/10192

Ms B's daughter contacted EWOV on behalf of her 91-year-old mother, saying her mother was often without gas (and therefore heating). She understood this was due to problems with water entering the gas pipes. She said other residents in the same block of units were similarly affected. When Assisted Referral didn't resolve the complaint, we opened an Investigation.

The local gas distributor acknowledged the outages, saying a high-pressure mains upgrade scheduled for 2022 in Ms B's area would permanently resolve the water issue. Recently, several leaks had been found nearby and fixed the same day. In addition, over the past month it had undertaken significant repair works nearby, including fixing a broken service tee which was likely the cause of recent water in the pipes. It was confident that these works had resolved the latest issues. It said Ms B's gas line had passed recent pressure testing.

We explained to Ms B's daughter that gas supply in Victoria is not guaranteed. However, gas distributors are required to make Guaranteed Service Level (GSL) payments to their customers as follows — $150 for an outage of more than 12 hours; $300 for an outage of more than 18 hours; $150 for the fifth outage in a calendar year; and $150 for the tenth outage in a calendar year. The payment is made through the gas retailer. We reviewed the property's fault report, finding seven supply disruptions so far in 2020. This meant Ms B was eligible for a GSL payment of $150 (fifth disruption).

We advised Ms B's daughter that $150 would be credited to her mother's account. We confirmed the gas distributor's advice that the scheduled 2022 upgrade would provide a more stable high-pressure gas supply and fix the water issue. We also explained that, because the works were of such a large scale, we couldn't request that her property be upgraded to high-pressure sooner.

The gas distributor apologised to Ms B. To ensure priority for her during any future outages, it flagged her account as 'vulnerable'. Ms B's daughter accepted the outcome of our independent Investigation. The complaint was closed.

We advised Ms B's daughter that $150 would be credited to her mother's account. We confirmed the gas distributor's advice that the scheduled 2022 upgrade would provide a more stable high-pressure gas supply and fix the water issue. We also explained that, because the works were of such a large scale, we couldn't request that her property be upgraded to high-pressure sooner.

The gas distributor apologised to Ms B. To ensure priority for her during any future outages, it flagged her account as 'vulnerable'. Ms B's daughter accepted the outcome of our independent Investigation. The complaint was closed.

Scheme participants

Systemic issues

From July to September 2020, we closed four systemic issues (all energy) identified through our case handling. 

Disconnection notices missing information about reconnection

An energy retailer's disconnection notices for 'unknown deemed contract' customers didn't outline reconnection procedures, as required under the Energy Retail Code. The retailer didn't consider the issue was systemic. But, in February 2019, it changed its wording to include reconnection procedures and agreed to compensate affected customers where they could be identified. SI/2019/16

Problems with bulk billing of hot water customers

An energy retailer trying to fix hot water faults said it faced infrastructure access issues, requiring multiple contacts with building management and individual owners. On top of this, its billing system wouldn't recognise addresses with alpha-numeric values. The retailer undertook not to bill customers for bulk hot water until the access issues were resolved, and then to comply with the current nine-month limit on backbilling. It said a system update scheduled for September 2020 would fix the address issue. SI/2019/5

Customer referred to financial counselling without other assistance

An energy retailer was referring customers with payment difficulties to financial counselling, without providing them with assistance. Under clause 91 of the Energy Retail Code, a retailer must not impose any condition on the provision of payment difficulties assistance. The Essential Services Commission is investigating. SI/2020/18

Customers wrongly informed meter readings would be estimated

An energy retailer had been telling customers their meter readings would be estimated because meters weren't being read due to COVID-19. Customers could provide a self-read if they wished. The retailer told us it had received conflicting information about meter readings, so thought it best to warn customers. Once it became clear that distributors were still reading meters, it stopped doing this. SI/2020/26

Public submissions

Glossary