Home World Business ‘They were ridiculously high’: Flood of complaints over eye-watering gas bills

‘They were ridiculously high’: Flood of complaints over eye-watering gas bills

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A small business charged more than $1500 for what turned out to be just over $4 in usage.

A hearing-impaired pensioner in shock at receiving a $2224 bill, more than five times her previous year’s winter gas costs.

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An intellectually disabled man and his guardian hounded for payment of over-estimated bills, then unwittingly moved onto an unaffordable repayment plan.

These are just a sample of the dozens of complaints submitted to Fairfax Media by readers in response to a story on a Brisbane couple who received a gas bill of more almost $5000 for their Melbourne investment property.

The most common gripes are often inextricably linked: unexpectedly large bills calculated using an estimate, and a failure to document the customer’s actual usage by reading the meter.

While bills are issued by gas suppliers – such as AGL, Alinta or Origin Energy, for example – they are calculated using information collected by meter readers on behalf of energy distributors – companies such as Jemena, Australian Gas Networks, Multinet or SP AusNet Gas.

‘This can send you bust’

Sam Borazio recently opened a coin laundry in the south-east Melbourne suburb of Bentleigh.

Sam Borazio in his Coin Laundry in East Bentleigh. He has received high gas bills based on estimated use instead of actual use, because his energy provider alleges his meter is blocked by a gate. Photograph Paul Jeffers The Age NEWS 11 Oct 2017

Sam Borazio at his coin laundry. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Illustration: Matt Golding Illustration: Matt Golding 

He received two gas bills while he was still setting up the business, before he had even hooked up the appliances and started using the fuel.

“My last two gas bills have been estimated,” Mr Borazio said.

“They were ridiculously high. When I enquired with my gas company, Origin, I was told that the meter reader could not access the gas meter because the gate was locked.”

Yet he does not have a gate at the premises. Instead, the “very large” gas meter sits next to the front door of the business, which is open from 6am to 10pm, seven days a week.

The gas meter in Mr Borazio's laundry.

The gas meter in Mr Borazio’s laundrette. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Origin then asked him to take a photograph of the gas meter to show the reading and send it to them, he says.

“I told them to send out a meter reader. I believe, to cut costs, they use ‘the gate was locked’ excuse to justify sending a ridiculously high, estimated bill.

“In turn, this tactic will force you to contact them in the hope you could send a photograph of your meter. This way they don’t have to send out a meter reader.

“Utility companies [are] using their customers as cheap labour to provide a service we already pay for in our bills.”

On Tuesday night, after months of back and forth, he received a message from Origin: “They adjusted the gas bill to $4.30,” he said.

“They would have expected the payment upfront if I hadn’t queried it. For a small business, something like this can send you bust.”

Bill

Asked about Mr Borazio’s case, an Origin spokesman said: “As a retailer, Origin does not read gas meters, but we do work with customers and network businesses to help resolve issues when they occur.

“Wherever … possible, we expect to receive timely and accurate meter reads from network businesses from which to bill our customers.”

‘I had to scream at them to stop’

Penelope McEncroe is the legal guardian of Paul Krieger, 38, from Forest Hill in Melbourne’s east.

Mr Krieger, who has cerebral palsy, was living with his mother Beverley Krieger until her death in February 2016.

Ms McEncroe is a long-time friend of the family – “His mother was like a mother to me,” she says.

She has been Mr Krieger’s advocate for the past 15 years and was also executor of his mother’s estate.

She began calling companies to notify them of Mrs Krieger’s death, close her accounts, and arrange for any outstanding payments to be made from her estate once probate was settled.

Gas bill

Most companies agreed to do so, she says, and referred her to an in-house bereavement department to make such an arrangement.

“All of the other services I called said I can wait for probate, park her bill, and then set it up in [Paul’s] name.”

Her experience with AGL was different. “They ignored that and said [Paul] was responsible for the bill. But I said the person responsible for the bill is dead.”

AGL then repeatedly called Mr Krieger, who is unable to speak on the phone but has a mobile for security reasons.

They also phoned Ms McEncroe, both in person and with “robo calls”, she says.

“They made a stressful period even more stressful,” Ms McEncroe says, the anger and frustration rising in her voice as she speaks.

“The constant robocalls and [requests] for money that you don’t even owe – I can’t tell you the stress that it causes.

“Originally they were ringing his phone. I had to scream at them, basically, to stop calling his phone because he can’t talk to you.

“They hassled the crap out of me and him. He had no comprehension. Then we started to get massive bills.”

Ms McEncroe says AGL closed Mrs Krieger’s mother’s account and opened one in Mr Krieger’s name. He was issued bills based on an estimate calculated on past usage – which was significantly higher when his mother was living there with him – rather than a meter reading of actual usage.

“I can’t even see on the bill where it says it’s an estimate,” she says. (Companies are required by law to state on a bill if it is based on an estimate rather than a meter reading).

She says Mr Krieger, who is on a disability pension, was put on a repayment plan of more than $700 a quarter without his or her knowledge, until a letter arrived detailing the dates on which payments were to be made.

An AGL spokeswoman said there was no outstanding amount on the account of Mr Krieger’s deceased mother. She said the calls AGL had made previously were in relation to Mr Krieger’s own account.

AGL has since determined that the estimates on his account were above his actual usage.

“AGL has processes in place when we are notified an account holder has died and we understand that the passing of a family member is very upsetting and finalising an estate can be stressful, so we have a simple system to help customers sort out their energy account as quickly as possible either by phone or online.

“Our customer representatives work with the customer to close the account or transfer it to another account holder if energy supply is still required. Our review indicates that in this example, this process was followed successfully. 

“AGL takes an inclusive approach in working with customers who have a disability to ensure our resolutions and payment plans are appropriate to their individual circumstances.”

‘It’s distressing’

The 72-year-old female pensioner, who lives in the NSW Southern Highlands and asked not to be named, said she complained to AGL after receiving a bill in the post last Friday for $2224.

Before this, her highest bill had been for $590, the previous winter.

The woman said she had complained a number of times in recent years after meter readers refused to record the actual usage at her semi-rural property, as she had a dog, even though it was kept securely in the back yard, away from the gas meter at the side of her property.

“I’m deaf, so I wear hearing aids and I lipread,” she said. “When I call the call centre I have trouble hearing.

“It’s distressing and I can see how many people say ‘Look, I’ll just pay it’.”

The woman said her daughter had complained to AGL on her behalf, who had offered an extension in payment until the matter could be investigated.

She has since decided to switch energy suppliers after experiencing what she describes as years of frustration.

An AGL spokeswoman said the company had contacted the customer’s daughter to apologise for the experience she described.

She said the distributor had not read the meter since March 2015 due to the presence of a dog at the property. Once the meter was read last month, it showed that the true usage was significantly higher than the estimates issued over the past two years. 

graphic

Complaints about estimated gas bills rose by 11 per cent in the 2015-16 financial year, according to the Victorian Energy Ombudsman’s latest annual report.

Billing cases made up 41 per cent of the ombudsman’s work that year, compared with 45 per cent in 2014-15.

The overall number of complaints to the ombudsman about gas cases dropped 18 per cent in 2015-16 to 10,715.

High bills were still the most common source of complaints (3663), followed by error (2326), back billing (2144), tariffs (1593) and estimation (1106).

In NSW there were 5379 gas cases in 2016-17, a decrease of 4 per cent on the previous year.

with Gina Cerasiotis

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