£19,000 in debt to Ovo: customers’ haunting tales of energy bill horror

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This week’s column is a tale of hauntings, suspense and hair-raising shocks. It is the horror story that is the modern energy market.

Scene 1 – A one-bedroom flat in North Lanarkshire, where the energy is supplied by Ovo after its takeover of SSE. Ovo asks the resident, JL, to send photos of the meters. As a result, her account goes from being £600 in credit to more than £19,000 in deficit. In shock, she queries this and the deficit leaps to £44,000.

Ovo discovers, when the Observer steps in, that a mismatch between meter readings when the account was transferred suggested that she had used enough gas to power her entire street, an astonishing error that was not picked up. JL’s account is, in fact, £240 in credit and another £100 has been added as goodwill.

Scene II – bailiffs turn up at the door of a Yorkshire nurse, JA, because of a £1,200 debt owed to Scottish Power by Ben Clarke. JA has never heard of Ben Clarke, and says she had been with Green Network Energy until it collapsed and her account was transferred to Shell. Scottish Power refuses to speak to her because she is not called Ben Clarke.

This is the start of one of the most baffling mysteries I’ve investigated. JA signed up to Look After My Bills (LAMB) which switches customers to the best deals. It sent her updates through 2021 confirming she was being supplied by Green.

In August 2021, it said she was being transferred to Shell and an email from Green said her direct debit had been cancelled. In fact, her account had been moved by LAMB from Green to Scottish Power in March 2021. No one knows why it was in the name of Ben Clarke, or why LAMB made such a pig’s ear of her affairs, as it has failed to respond to my requests for a comment.

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JA’s payments to Green stopped in March 2021 and she was never billed by Shell. It takes nine weeks for Scottish Power to disentangle the account at my behest, and to work out what she owes. Back-billing rules mean suppliers can only charge retrospectively for up to 12 months if they’ve failed to bill the customer.

JA had used £1,200 of energy over that period, and Scottish Power has slashed the debt to £500 because of its service shortfalls.

Scene III – a solicitor’s letter drops on to the doormat of MD of Edinburgh, addressed to “The Occupier” and threatening court action unless £1,402 is remitted within a month to Good Energy. MD pays Bulb for his gas and electricity and has never been a customer of Good Energy. Nor can an “Occupier” be taken to court.

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He informed Good Energy of this, but received no reply. The phantom bill was exorcised only when I contacted the company, which discovered it had confused MD’s address with that of an indebted customer. It has now reined in its attack dogs and paid a goodwill gesture.

Scene IVTW’s family is given two months to leave their Oxford home after their landlord dies. They inform their supplier, Ovo, pay their final bill and transfer the dual-fuel account to their new address. Four months later, a bill arrives from their old address, which had been sold.

Ovo had set up a new account in TW’s name, with an opening balance of £566 in debit. It now wants £746.89 for energy used in the weeks since he left the property, and has recorded a default on his credit record. TW points out he moved out in May, produces his final bill confirming he is fully paid up, but Ovo is uninterested.

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It tells the Observer that a new account for the property had been opened in the name of “The Occupier” and since bills were ignored, a search associated TW with the address and his name was added to the account.

It apologises for not removing it when he complained, promises compensation and has removed the default from his credit report.

Scene VVJ of Leeds tries to log on to her British Gas app and is told she is no longer a customer. Not that that prevents British Gas debiting payments. The company eventually discovers it has mistakenly attached a different email and address to her account, which has deregistered her.

VJ naturally fears her electronic bills, along with sensitive account information, will have been sent to the stranger whose details were swapped with hers, and that she may be paying for the stranger’s consumption.

British Gas has now corrected her records and insists her details have not been compromised. It also claims she has been paying the correct bills. But since it says the readings are relayed by a smart meter, which VJ says she doesn’t have, and since she has now been sent a debt collection letter which British Gas admits was not meant for her, she is unconvinced.

So this story continues. If British Gas doesn’t come up with a better explanation, the Energy Ombudsman would be able to demand more detailed data.

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