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Reflect
James Lawson reduced size

"Disconnection activity is increasing, albeit still at lower levels than pre-COVID, as companies start to return to normal business operations."

Case numbers declined in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the last quarter of 2021, however, we’ve experienced a slight increase in case numbers month-on-month, with March 2022 case numbers up 16% compared to January 2022. It’s too early to predict if this upward trend will continue during the year and if the significant issues in the community will filter through to increased case numbers.

One issue that is clearly on the rise is disconnection cases. Our disconnection complaints rose sharply in the first quarter of 2022, up 58% compared with the last quarter of 2021. More retailers featured in our complaints in the January to March quarter and the number of complaints from customers of large retailers has increased. This data, plus what the retailers are telling us directly, confirms that disconnection activity is increasing, albeit still at lower levels than pre-COVID, as companies start to return to normal business operations. The customer story of Thiago’s struggle to get reconnected, in part due to language barriers, highlights how a focus on the individual and their needs can lead to a positive outcome for both the customer and the retailer.

It has been great to get out into the Victorian community as part of our outreach and engagement activity, to help us understand the issues affecting energy and water customers. We are combining in-person attendance with the continuation of some online forums to maximise the opportunity to provide assistance. We’ve visited the councils of Hume and Wyndham, areas with high financial vulnerability, and heard from customers concerned about rising debt levels, disconnection and debt collection. Thank you to the Consumer Action Law Centre, the Wyndham Humanitarian Network, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and others for inviting us along to events.

The work in this edition of Reflect happened under the tenure of Cynthia Gebert, our former Ombudsman. We thank Cynthia for the lasting impact she has had on Victoria’s energy and water sector and for her positive leadership of EWOV. We wish her well in her new role as the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.

Read on for more detail and, as always, you can find more data relating to our casework in the Data Hub.

Issues watch

Disconnection cases (Credit > Disconnection/Restriction > Imminent and Credit > Disconnection/Restriction > Actual) rose significantly in the January to March 2022 quarter, after trending down in 2021. Disconnection cases were up 58% compared to the last quarter of 2021, reaching 227 cases, despite overall cases declining.

Our case data, plus what retailers are telling us directly, highlights that more retailers have begun disconnection activity since the last quarter of 2021. In the October to December 2021 quarter, 15 retailers were involved in complaints about disconnections and, in the January to March 2022 quarter, that number had increased to 21. There were also more disconnection complaints about the larger retailers in the most recent quarter. One large retailer, for instance, had 33 complaints in the October to December 2021 quarter and then 58 complaints in the January to March 2022 quarter, suggesting that disconnection activity had increased at the retailer.

Disconnection activity remains lower than pre-COVID, but we expect this upward trend to continue in 2022, given the amount of debt in the sector and the transition toward normal business activity following what is expected to be the final major lockdown in Victoria of the pandemic.

Customer service cases have bucked the downward trend in cases, rising 25% in the January to March 2022 quarter, when compared to the October to December 2021 quarter. Electricity and gas customer service complaints made up the rise in the January to March 2022 quarter, while water customer service complaints were down slightly. The highest sub-issue in the latest quarter was poor service, followed by failure to respond/inform and online services/applications. Customers complaining about online services and applications told us about issues such as the energy retailer’s online application to track usage being inaccurate and misleading, and issues with setting up an account online which required multiple calls to the retailer and missed promises to rectify the situation.

Customer service issues can often be a source of dissatisfaction with customers, especially as improved customer service in other industries can lead to higher expectations with all companies. It is a reminder for energy and water businesses to prioritise good customer service outcomes, and train and monitor staff performance to help reduce the occurrence of complaints.

Land cases have been steady or increasing slightly despite the overall trend downward in cases. We received 189 land cases in the January to March 2022 quarter, up 6% compared to the previous quarter and 27% higher than the January to March 2021 quarter.

The recent increase in land cases, since the middle of last year, has largely been due to an uptick in water cases. Water land cases rose from 41 in the July to September 2021 quarter to 101 in the January to March 2022 quarter. Vegetation management and network assets cases have seen the biggest rises in recent quarters. Works on network assets or vegetation should be well communicated in the community prior to the commencement of works in order to lessen the effects of this on complaints.

The big picture

  • From January to March 2022, we received 3,756 cases, down 6% from the previous quarter and down 15% from the same quarter in 2020.
  • Billing cases dropped 5% compared to the previous quarter and were down 14% compared to the January to March 2021 quarter.
  • We received 299 high billing cases from January to March 2022, down from 385 high bill cases from the same time last year.
  • Credit cases rose 24% in the quarter, compared to the previous quarter. Credit cases were down 8% when compared to the same quarter last year.
  • Disconnection cases increased by 58% compared to the previous quarter (from 144 cases to 227 cases).
  • Payment difficulties cases also increased (up 12%) and so did Credit Collection cases (up 13%) when compared to the previous quarter.

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

Language difficulties and disconnection

DISCONNECTION | HARDSHIP

Case number: EWOV/2022/00004631

A representative for Thiago* contacted us with a complaint about a gas disconnection. The representative told us that Thiago had been disconnected approximately six or seven months ago. They believed that Thiago was disconnected due to an outstanding balance of $1,884.10. Thiago has language barriers. They received correspondence from their retailer but found it difficult to engage. Since disconnection, Thiago has requested reconnection. Thiago is on government income payments and requires a payment plan. The representative attempted to discuss the matter with the retailer but it advised that it would not discuss it with them. The representative sought for the gas to be reconnected, assistance with concession and the Utility Relief Grant Scheme, and an affordable payment plan of $20 per week.

We raised an Investigation for Thiago’s complaint, bypassing the Assisted Referral stage because we believed that Thiago’s concerns couldn’t be resolved quickly and needed to be investigated. We wrote to Thiago’s retailer and requested that Thiago’s supply be reconnected on the same day and that any reconnection fee be waived. We directed that the retailer suspend any debt collection activity and not disconnect the supply while we investigated the complaint.

Thiago’s retailer informed us that concession was active on Thiago’s electricity account and a last payment of $200 was made on 12 June 2019. It confirmed that Thiago’s electricity was also disconnected on 21 October 2019, leaving a final balance of $722.74. Electricity was reconnected and a new account was established and Thiago has maintained a good payment history for the new account. The retailer told us the gas balance of $1884.10 is also outstanding.

The retailer backdated the winter gas concession to 16 May 2018, lowering the outstanding balance to $1,471.04. It also applied missed electricity concession on the new account, leaving a credit of $76.79. As a gesture of goodwill, it agreed to waive the overdue electricity bill of $722.74. It also agreed to support Thiago with a payment plan of $20 for 6 months and sent an URGS application by post. The representative confirmed that Thiago was satisfied with the outcome of the complaint and we closed the case.

* Name has been changed

Holiday house water leak unattended due to COVID-19 lockdown

WATER LEAK | COVID-19

Case number: EWOV/2022/00003462

Noah* called our 1800 number with a complaint about a higher than expected bill due to a water leak. Noah told us that the property was used as a holiday house and during 2021, they were not able to visit the property for an extended time due to COVID-19 restrictions on movement. When Noah was allowed to return to the property, they discovered a water leak. Their water company advised that the leak was on Noah’s side and Noah arranged for it to be fixed immediately. Noah told us that, two weeks later, they received a bill for $6,500. The water company offered to reduce the bill by $2,500 but Noah wanted the bill reduced to the average bill amount of approximately $150.

We initially raised an Assisted Referral to Noah’s water company. Noah returned to us, saying that the water company told them it would not change its position. Noah said that, as there was a lockdown in Victoria at the time which limited their access to the property, the water company should consider this in its decision.

We started a Stage 2 Investigation for Noah’s case, as we believed that their case couldn’t be resolved quickly. As part of our Investigation, the water company confirmed that Noah contacted its faults and emergencies line on 20 November 2021. It attended the property on the same day and confirmed a leak on the property. The water company told us it issued a bill for $6,536.95 for the period 30 August – 3 December 2021. After communication with the customer, the water company told us it offered to apply the maximum high usage leak allowance of $2,000. After further communication, it offered to apply a further $1,212.72, bringing the offered credit to $3,212.72. It confirmed it would honour the offer of $3,212.72 and contact the customer to assess eligibility for the Utility Relief Grant.

We discussed the offer with Noah and they advised us they were satisfied with the offer. Noah would be left with a current balance of $3,264.20 and a hold would be placed on the account until 13 April 2022. We informed the parties of the resolution and closed the case.

* Name has been changed

Debt sold to collection agency on disputed account

COLLECTION | DEBT COLLECTION AGENCY

Case number: EWOV/2021/00002761

Lucas* called us with a complaint about their energy retailer. Lucas told us they were receiving debt collection activity from Panthera Finance for $3,396.24. Lucas said they moved from the property in April 2020 and believed that the retailer was overcharging them. Lucas told us they had never received correspondence from their retailer about the debt and wanted the retailer to stop collection activity and cancel the debt.

We initially raised an Assisted Referral to a higher-level representative at Lucas’ retailer. Lucas returned to us saying that their retailer confirmed the debt had been sold and it would not cancel the debt. Lucas was not satisfied with the response and we opened an Investigation into their case.

As part of our Investigation, Lucas’ retailer told us that it made attempts to recover the debt, including establishing a payment plan in February 2020. It said that Lucas made an initial payment as part of the plan but no further payments and that it issued a reminder notice on 28 March 2020, a disconnection notice on 9 April 2020 and then a disconnection warning on 16 April 2020. It said Lucas contacted it on 17 April 2020 arranging a move out and the account was closed on 22 April 2020. The debt was then sold to Panthera Finance on 16 October 2021.

We spoke to Lucas and met with the retailer, leading to a resolution where the retailer would buy the debt back from Panthera Finance and Lucas would pay $1,500 within 10 business days. In return, the retailer would waive the remaining amount of $1,896.24. Lucas accepted the retailer’s offer and they made the payment of $1,500 on 10 March 2022, and we closed their case.

* Name has been changed

Voltage variation leads to missed solar credits

VOLTAGE VARIATION | SOLAR

Case number: EWOV/2022/00004163

Terry* contacted us via our online web chat. Terry told us they were dissatisfied with their electricity distributor because of voltage variation. Terry has a 10kW solar system which they said shuts down as the voltage to their property is often too high. Terry said their system generated 10.2kW on a day when it should have produced at least 50kW. Terry told us they had spoken to the distributor on multiple occasions and it assured them on 20 December 2021 the issue would be rectified within 20 business days but it didn’t happen. Terry was seeking an immediate adjustment to the voltage and compensation for lost solar credits.

We raised an Assisted Referral to a high-level contact at the distributor but Terry returned to us saying that the distributor hadn’t contacted them and they were concerned about having to pay for electricity from the grid when they could be using solar power.

We started an Investigation and learned from the distributor that Terry had initially installed solar in 2012. No voltage assessments were made at that time and customers were allowed to export as much solar power to the grid as they could. Since then, many more customers have taken up solar in the area, causing pressure on the network and high voltages which can damage household appliances. The distributor told us that, on 2 December 2021, Terry’s solar installer applied to have the solar inverter upgraded to 5kW export. The solar installer was advised by the distributor that 0kW was the assessment for the property.

The distributor indicated that on 22 December 2021, Terry called its faults line advising that voltage was exceeding 259V and it subsequently told Terry that a tap change was scheduled for the transformer and that Terry would need to contact the solar installer to lower the export limit on the inverter. It then received notification of the Assisted Referral. The distributor told us that Terry’s inverter was exporting higher than 5kW which was contributing to the high voltage in the area.

We spoke to Terry on 22 March 2022 and they confirmed that the voltage tap occurred on 18 March. We explained the distributor’s position and their proposed resolution being to have Terry limit export to 5kW which should help reduce the high voltage and their offer of a customer goodwill payment of $200. Terry told us they were satisfied with the outcome and we closed the case.

* Name has 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.

In February, we met with representatives of Consumer Action Law Centre, Financial Counselling Victoria and the Essential Services Commission to discuss the experiences of Financial Counsellors acting on behalf of customers when dealing with energy providers. We shared ideas about how to reduce barriers facing Financial Counsellors when representing vulnerable customers and shared ways to improve engagement with providers.

We also attended the first online meeting of the Wyndham Humanitarian Network’s Legal Consumer Housing Working Group for 2022. Members provided updates on increased support for refugee and humanitarian entrants settling in Wyndham and the continuing social and financial impact of the pandemic on this vulnerable cohort of Victorians.

Together with Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Good Shepherd and Uniting we presented at two online Energy Information Sessions for people seeking asylum in Victoria. Facilitated by Australian Red Cross we shared valuable advice and information about customer entitlements and how to contact EWOV in order to seek assistance for energy and water-related issues.

At the end of March, we were back out in the community for a Bring Your Bills day in Craigieburn organised by Hume City Council. The participants included many Arabic, Turkish and Hindi-speaking residents and EWOV was able to register complaints and discuss concerns around rising debt levels and fears of disconnection and debt collection. The Live Your Best Life event in Hoppers Crossing coordinated by Wyndham City Council also took place in late March. This event was designed to give people the opportunity to learn about their rights, and speak face-to-face with key services in Wyndham, directly and safely. It also provided us with an excellent opportunity for us to re-engage with our community partners and external Stakeholders.

Scheme participants

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

Systemic issues

From January to March 2022, we closed one energy systemic issue and two water systemic issues identified through our case handling.

Daylight savings and time of use

An energy retailer identified that its billing system, implemented in 2018, did not take into account daylight savings hours for Victorian customers on a Time-Of-Use tariff (TOU). The retailer identified 1,630 accounts that agreed to a TOU or time-sensitive tariff but had not been billed correctly. It contacted affected customers and decided not to recover any undercharged amounts. We were satisfied with the action taken and acknowledged the retailer’s decision not to recover charges under the error. EWOV/2022/5196

Digital meter trial leads to failed water records

A water corporation discovered an issue with its digital meter trial, with 500 digital meters not displaying or communicating water usage. The corporation decided not to backbill for water usage for the period when the meters failed to record usage. It also decided to replace the affected digital meters with mechanical meters. We were satisfied with the action taken, noting that the removal of the digital meters may raise other issues for customers. EWOV/2022/5824

Title discrepancy leads to overcharging

A water corporation billed title charges incorrectly, following a discrepancy between its billing system and the property record system. There were 54 customers with 68 properties impacted by the error – 50 residential and 18 commercial. The corporation contacted all customers and refunded the relevant charges for the previous seven years as well as interest on the charges. We were satisfied with the action taken and the length of time to refund. EWOV/2022/5784

Glossary

Visit the Data Hub for a full glossary of terms.