A customer, who was an asylum seeker, was unable to make full payment on her gas and electricity accounts as required by her retailer (November 2017)

Trouble paying a bill, Debt collection and credit default listings
Case Number 2017/17502
Outcome Conciliation

The Issue

Mrs B contacted EWOV after being dissatisfied with her retailer about collection activity. She received a bill in the amount of about $860, including a pay on time discount. Mrs B advised her retailer that she could not make any payments. Mrs B was an asylum seeker and she did not receive government assistance. She lived in a rental property with her husband, who was also an asylum seeker, and their baby. She told us the retailer insisted it required full payment despite her situation of financial hardship. She wanted her retailer to consider reducing her bill amounts, and put her on a payment plan that was within her financial means. Meanwhile, Mrs B transferred away from the retailer.

We raised an Assisted Referral, and a high level contact at the retailer approached Mrs B directly to seek a resolution to her complaint. It offered Mrs B a three month extension on paying the debt, including a payment plan under which she could make fortnightly payments to her bills. Mrs B rejected the offer on the grounds that she was no longer receiving Centrelink payments. She recontacted EWOV and told us she was worried about what would happen if she couldn’t make payments over the three month period, as she had no source of income. Mrs B told us she had the capacity to pay $5 a fortnight.

The Investigation

We opened an Investigation, and the retailer confirmed Mrs B owed $1116 for gas and $122 for electricity. It advised that both amounts were based on actual usage and supply charges. The retailer advised that as the accounts had been closed and were final, Mrs B was not eligible for a reduction on either account, and the amounts were required to be paid in full. Because Mrs B had not made a payment on either account since the accounts were closed, the retailer told us it did not have any evidence of the customer’s willingness to pay off her arrears. The retailer also noted that because Mrs B had been making full payments on her electricity bills before closing her account, and because she had failed to provide proof of concession or notification of hardship, there were no indicators that Mrs B was in hardship. The retailer once again said it would offer a fortnightly payment plan to pay off the full amount over a term of three months, however, failing Mrs B’s agreement to this, the retailer said it would forward her debt to a collection agency. The retailer also noted that because Mrs B’s account was closed, it could not make a hardship payment plan available to her.

Through our Investigation, EWOV found that the retailer had billed Mrs B on actual usage. We reviewed the retailer’s customer contact notes and confirmed the retailer did not offer hardship assistance to Mrs B, even though she had made numerous calls disputing the high gas bills. We organised for a financial assessment of Mrs B’s capacity to pay, and confirmed that Mrs B and her husband were on bridging visas and was financially supported by community centres. Previously, Mrs B had been receiving Centrelink payments of $724 per fortnight up to one month before the investigation. Her husband had also been receiving payments of $424 per fortnight. Mrs and Mr B had an immigration meeting four months earlier where it was decided they would no longer be eligible for Centrelink payments. Mrs B was continuing to seek assistance and advice regarding her circumstances, was planning on reapplying for Centrelink payments when possible, and was actively seeking employment (as was her husband). We found that Mrs B had no income to support daily expenses, no income to pay back arrears or for current usage, and was not currently receiving any concessions. We noted that this was a unique set of circumstances.

Following the financial assessment, we recommended Mrs B seek advice from a financial counsellor about managing her debt. We also consulted with a financial counsellor, and based on our Investigation, recommended to the retailer that Mrs B was only able to pay $5 per fortnight to her arrears on her electricity and gas accounts. In order to show her commitment to paying her debt, we recommended Mrs B make the nominal payment every fortnight, and look for ways to reduce or change her energy consumption, engage with a financial counsellor, and sign up for Centrepay. We recommended that the payment plan could be reviewed in three months by the retailer, and that the retailer consider applying the gas pay-on-time discounts to Mrs B’s account to reduce the outstanding balance.

The Outcome

The retailer agreed to a $5 fortnightly payment plan, to alternate between gas and electricity. The retailer requested the arrangement be ongoing, but would be subject to review in three months. The retailer advised that because the account was closed it would not be able to monitor the payments internally, and therefore might refer Mrs B’s debt to a collection agency, but assured that the collection agency would adhere to the agreed upon payment plan so long as Mrs B met the fortnightly $5 payment commitment. Due to Mrs B’s personal circumstances, the retailer offered to apply a once off credit based on a pay-on-time discount to both Mrs B’s gas ($259) and electricity ($26). The retailer noted that no further payments had been received since the case was opened with EWOV, so Mrs B’s arrears (minus the pay on time discount) stood at $857 for gas and $96 for electricity. The terms of the retailer’s offer required that Mrs B would advise it of any changes to her circumstances regarding payment. Mrs B accepted the retailer’s offer and terms, and EWOV closed the case.

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