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Reflect
Cynthia Gebert

"We will be watching to see what impacts the most recent lockdowns have on case numbers and issue types."

Case numbers were steady in the second quarter of 2021 but remain down 6% when compared to the same time last year. Our case numbers were likely affected by COVID-19 lockdowns that occurred in May/June, after we experienced a rise in case volumes between January and March. We also saw a reduction in cases during periods of previous lockdowns – cases dropped 22% between March and April 2020, for instance, during another period of restrictions. We will be watching to see what impacts the most recent measures have on case numbers and issue types.

There were some notable rises in the quarter. Supply cases rose 77% compared to the first quarter of 2021, reflecting the issues customers experienced after the significant storms on 9 June. The impacts of the storms are likely to last in many communities and we’ll be watching to see what issues come through from these customers as they turn their minds from immediate needs to broader issues.

Our annual report for the 2020-21 financial year will be available on ewov.com.au in late September. The report will feature insights into the cases we received, analysis of our performance against our strategic priorities, key improvements we completed in the year, case studies and more. Please subscribe to get a copy in your email inbox.

Issues watch

Billing error cases overtook high bill cases as the dominant billing sub issue type in the April to June 2021 quarter, something we haven’t experienced since the April to June 2020 quarter. This is significant, as high billing cases usually dominate the cases we receive. Billing error cases often relate to systemic issues at energy and water companies. These issues are potentially easier for companies to overcome than high bill cases, as those cases often relate to broader affordability issues in the community.

Many of the billing error cases during this time related to misalignment of customer details between retailer systems and concession cards. We have highlighted the issues related to retailers being unable to accommodate customers with a single name in their system to energy and water companies. Customers from some cultural groups only have a single given name and some retailers require two names in order to open an account. This can cause issues when the retailer’s system doesn’t match a customer’s concession card details, leading to missed concessions and, ultimately, billing error complaints.

We experienced an increase in debt collection cases in the recent quarter. After recording 256 collection cases in the first quarter of 2021, we received 312 cases in the April to June quarter, an increase of 22%. No one retailer stands out as dominant in this category.

It is always important that the Payment Difficulty Framework has been applied and that customers have accessed their entitlements that help to ensure they do not accrue unmanageable amounts of debt. Escalating debts cause issues for debt management at companies and potential distress and disengagement for customers.

In the past two editions of Reflect, we highlighted increases in disconnections. In the lead-up to Christmas, disconnection cases surged and in the first quarter of 2021, we experienced a 119% rise in disconnection cases compared to the disconnection cases from the last quarter of 2020. We shared that a small number of retailers were responsible for the majority of those disconnection cases, highlighting how individual decisions by retailers can impact our case volumes.

In the April to June 2021 quarter, however, disconnection cases reduced slightly, down 8.1% from the high in the January to March quarter but still up 94% compared to the April to June 2020 quarter. The slight reduction in the recent quarter aligned with changing expectations on disconnections issued by the Essential Services Commission. Two retailers registered 77% of imminent disconnection cases, particularly with gas. We’ll be watching these cases closely, as increased gas use in the winter months will start appearing on customer bills and customers may experience greater affordability issues. We recognise that many companies are yet to recommence usual disconnection practices and we will watch for any issues or trends of note.

The big picture

  • From April to June 2021, we received 4,482 cases, up 1% from the previous quarter but down 6% from the same quarter in 2020.
  • Supply cases rose significantly, up 77% from the previous quarter (199 to 353), mainly related to unplanned outages.
  • Billing cases were down 6% compared to the previous quarter and down 15% compared to the same time last year.
  • Credit cases rose in the quarter, up 2% compared to the previous quarter and up 4% compared to the same time last year. The largest rise was in credit collection cases, up 22% from the previous quarter.
  • Enquiries rose 9%, Unassisted Referrals were up 8% and Assisted Referrals rose 4% in the quarter compared to the previous quarter, while Investigations were down 12%.
  • Disconnection cases dropped slightly, down 8% compared to the previous quarter. We’ll be watching disconnection cases in the next quarter to see if retailers move to initiate more disconnections as Victoria comes out of COVID-19 restrictions.

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.

Customer stories

Missing concessions for more than a year

BILLING CONCESSIONS | SYSTEM ERROR

Case number: 2021/6590 + 2021/6592

We received a complaint from the authorised representative of Lah* who was missing concessions on both electricity and gas. The representative advised that there was no concession applied to Lah’s account, despite being eligible since March 2019. Lah only has a family given name on the record with Centrelink and they recently received a letter from their retailer to advise that the name on the account didn’t match the name on the concession. The representative asked for a resolution that included applying all eligible concessions and backdating concessions to when Lah first became eligible.

We raised the complaint as a discretionary Investigation, bypassing the usual Assisted Referral stage because of language and communication difficulties. The retailer apologised for the inconvenience and confirmed that due to a system error on its end, the concession for both electricity and gas were not applied. It confirmed that concessions would be applied to future bills and applied $1,000 credits to both electricity and gas to cover missing concessions and as compensation for inconvenience. Lah accepted the resolution and we closed the case.

* Names have been changed

Direct debit mistakes and a disconnection

IMMINENT DISCONNECTION | PAYMENT PLAN | WRONGFUL DISCONNECTION

Case number: 2021/6049

Ezra’s* representative contacted us on our 1800 number advising that Ezra was dissatisfied with their retailer due to an imminent disconnection. They said that a payment plan was set up for the amount of $150 per fortnight, to be direct-debited from their bank account. Ezra advised that the retailer debited $501 from the bank account for gas, which was eventually refunded, then another amount of over $600 was debited without consent for electricity. That amount was also eventually refunded but Ezra was so worried about it happening again, they cancelled the direct debit.

We raised the case as a discretionary Investigation, bypassing the usual Assisted Referral stage because of low income and health issues. As part of our Investigation, we found that Ezra’s gas had been disconnected in April 2019. We arranged for the gas to be reconnected and told the retailer not to disconnect electricity while we investigated.

The retailer apologised for any inconvenience and confirmed that the direct debit had been cancelled on the accounts. Ezra’s gas, with a balance of $501.04 billed to 3 April 2019, was reconnected on 14 May 2021. We assessed the retailer’s disconnection process and found that a Wrongful Disconnection Payment was applicable because the disconnection didn’t meet the requirements of the Energy Retail Code. Since more than 14 days had elapsed since disconnection without contact from Ezra to the retailer, Ezra was entitled to a capped Wrongful Disconnection Payment of $3,500. The retailer applied a credit of $3,500 to Ezra’s gas account, leaving a credit balance of $2,998.96. Ezra’s electricity account balance was $2,393.27 billed to 28 May 2021. Ezra requested for the credit from the closed gas account to be transferred to the electricity account and to their new gas account. The retailer also offered $100 customer service payments for gas and electricity. After all credits had been applied, Ezra was $754.48 in credit and the retailer confirmed the amount would be refunded to them.

The retailer advised that Ezra would need to contact Services Australia to set up payments via Centrepay and gave a reference number to achieve this.

* Names have been changed

Faulty meter leads to outage in unoccupied property

OFF SUPPLY | COMPENSATION

Case number: 2021/4856

Ramone* contacted us about damage to their property after an off-supply incident. When they returned from two weeks’ holiday, they discovered the property was without power. After initially saying there was no issue, the distributor confirmed that the meter was faulty and needed to be replaced. Food and bait had been left without refrigeration. Ramone submitted a claim for compensation for food, as well as the fridges and containers they had to discard because of the smell. The distributor rejected the claim and Ramone came to EWOV seeking compensation for the amount of $2,066.

We raised an Assisted Referral with the distributor, which contacted us requesting an upgrade to an Investigation, as it did not believe the matter could be resolved at the Assisted Referral stage. As part of the Investigation, the distributor confirmed that Ramone’s meter stopped consumption on 27 March, and on 4 April Ramone returned home and reported that they were off-supply. Crews attended and discovered a faulty contactor with the meter. The crew replaced the meter and supply was restored the same day. Regarding Ramone’s claim, the distributor advised that it did not satisfy the requirements for compensation as the incident was an outage and not an unauthorised voltage variation. Distributors currently do not have the ability to automate fault detection with smart meters and are reliant on customer interaction for these kinds of incidents. It noted that it was unfortunate that the property was vacant at the time. The distributor advised that it attended the property within an hour of being notified of the fault and supply was restored the same day.

We reviewed the information and determined that the distributor was correct about the compensation issue and that it actioned Ramone’s report of loss of supply in a timely manner. We concluded the distributor did what was required of it and that the matter may best be dealt with between Ramone and their insurer. We informed Ramone. They accepted the conclusion and we closed the case.

* Names have been changed

Community event raises concession issue

CONCESSION ERROR | OUTREACH AND ENGAGEMENT

Case number: 2021/6081

We attended an outreach event in a Melbourne local government area where there are many households facing financial difficulty and disadvantage. At the event, we spoke to Zion* and their representative about a complaint they had about the gas and electricity retailer. Zion had been missing concessions on both accounts for more than a year. Zion advised that they had contacted the retailer in the past and it had committed to fixing the issue but had failed to do so. Both Zion’s address and name were incorrect on the account. We took Zion’s complaint at the event.

As part of our Investigation, the retailer confirmed that a system error on the retailer side resulted in missing concessions. The retailer apologised for the inconvenience and confirmed that they have re-billed both gas and electricity, leaving the electricity balance $194.30 in credit and the gas balance $44.18 in credit. The retailer also offered a lump sum credit of $500 on each of the accounts upon closure. Zion confirmed that they were happy with the resolution and we closed the case.

* Names have been changed

Outreach

Our focus on community outreach and engagement supports our goal of increasing accessibility and awareness of EWOV while building relationships with organisations that work with Victorian energy and water consumers who may be at the greatest risk of experiencing financial vulnerability.

Our outreach and engagement activity was again impacted by restrictions due to COVID-19 outbreaks in the quarter, however, we managed to maintain connections through both online and face-to-face events with communities at what was, again, a difficult time for many in the Victorian community.

The focus of our online events is on sharing insights and trends that we identify in our casework and the systemic issues investigations but we also draw from the issues presented by the community agencies. Our Ombudsman shared insights from our cases and our Missing the Mark report with a group of 40 community stakeholders, highlighting the importance of the Payment Difficulty Framework in supporting consumers. She also shared trends and issues at a Financial Counselling Victoria forum and joined a webinar with the Victorian Pride Lobby about its report into LGBTIQA+ experiences with essential services businesses. The report had valuable lessons for improving customer service experiences for LGBTIQA+ customers and also provided valuable insights for us to apply at EWOV in our interactions with customers from this community.

Out in the community, we joined ‘bring your bills’ days in Wyndham and Hume, sharing the importance of maintaining contact with energy and water companies to ensure vulnerable customers can access support, as well as checking bills for the application of concessions and to ensure customers are on the best deal. We were also able to raise some complaints from customers at these events for customers who may otherwise not have accessed the services of EWOV.

Scheme participants

In our Data Hub, you'll find the latest quarterly case data for all of EWOV's scheme participants.

Systemic issues

From April to June 2021, we closed nine energy systemic issues identified through our case handling.

Reconciliation of concessions

An energy retailer completed a reconciliation of its concession file with the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) (then known as the Department of Health and Human Services). The process identified a number of forms that had incorrect excess gas eligibility dates. The retailer took action, sending a letter and new forms to approximately 5,700 affected customers, along with a reply paid envelope. It will continue to work with DFFH to process forms manually in the meantime. We were satisfied with the steps taken by the retailer. SI/2021/24

No payment due date

Our case handling highlighted an issue with an energy retailer’s payment plan letters. The letters did not show the date by which each payment must be made. The letters did not appear to comply with clause 81(5) of the Energy Retail Code (ERC). The Essential Services Commission (ESC) gave us advice and we issued a notice to the retailer to address the issue. The retailer followed the advice and we were satisfied with the action, noting that any redress should be considered on a case-by-case basis. SI/2020/20.

Review of intent of contract

From one of our cases, we identified that a retailer’s bills did not appear to align with customer contracts. A clause in a customer’s contract suggested that the service charge would be divided by the number of sites in the customer’s retirement community. The retailer explained that the figure was to be multiplied by the number of sites before being divided and to simply divide did not make commercial sense. The retailer agreed to remove the phrase ‘divided by the number of sites’ from its contracts to save any confusion. We reviewed the intent of the contract and relevant case law and found that the 166 affected customers had been billed with the intent of the contract. SI/2020/17.

Confusing language

We received cases about a retailer’s renewal letters, suggesting some customers found the word ‘similar’ to be confusing. They understood the word to be referring to the discount amount, however, the retailer suggested the word referred to the similarities of the plan’s attributes. The retailer agreed to change the wording of its letters. We were satisfied that the wording was compliant and that it was only clarity of the word ‘similar’ that was required. SI/2020/35.

Not meeting obligations under clause

We investigated a retailer’s bills and suggested that it had not met its obligations under clause 25 of the Energy Retail Code. The retailer conducted a review and found that all but clause 25(1)(m) were included in its bills. The retailer is taking steps to rectify the issue and the ESC is considering the investigation. SI/2021/28.

Missing paperwork

Our investigation identified that a retailer could not find the medical cooling concession paperwork for a number of its customers following archiving. The retailer communicated to 641 affected customers and requested new signed forms. We formed the view that redress may be required for certain customers and that this should be considered on a case-by-case basis. SI/2021/36.

Billing delays

We received complaints from several customers about billing delays with an embedded network retailer. The retailer advised that a third-party meter reader had not been reading meters and advised that it expected improvement over 2020. The retailer is no longer a member of EWOV and the matter is being considered by the ESC. SI/2020/37.

Transfer without consent investigation

We identified an increase in complaints about a retailer transferring customers without their consent. The retailer denied transferring without consent and provided call recordings. We were not satisfied that explicit informed consent was given in the call recordings supplied and determined that inappropriate sales tactics were used. We did note that the nature of calls improved between 2018 and 2020. The matter is being considered by the ESC and Consumer Affairs Victoria. SI/2019/29.

Missing words in reminder notices

We investigated a breach of clause 109(5)(d) of the ERC about a retailer’s failure to include the words ‘complaint or dispute’ in reminder notices. The retailer agreed to include the words ‘complaint or dispute’ moving forward. There were 1,990 affected customers and the retailer agreed to apply goodwill credits of $50 for active accounts and $25 for customers with an inactive account and existing debt. The ESC will determine whether Wrongful Disconnection Payments apply for each of the disconnections. SI/2020/4.

Glossary

Visit the Data Hub for a full glossary of terms.