Billing is still one of the most common complaints that Ombudsman Services receive
The Ombudsman recorded a growing number of complaints about debt collection and defaults on credit files from dealings with communications companies, such as mobile phone networks. Often such complaints arise when a consumer enters into a contract and change their mind and have to pay a termination fee. Their service is disconnected but they are still charged. This can then escalate to a debt collection agency and potentially affect the consumer’s credit-worthiness.
There is also an issue with data downloads which have caused so-called 'bill shock' for thousands of unsuspecting mobile phone customers exceeding what they were told was an 'unlimited' package.
Billing continues to be the single most common complaint that the Ombudsman Services recorded for energy firms. In 2011/12 80% of energy complaints were complaints related to disputed charges (19%), customer service (16%), inaccurate invoices (15%), back-billing (15%) and inaccurate meter readings (8%).
Ombudsman Debra Vaughan-Massey says: “There are signs that energy companies are improving the standard of customer service provided to customers but bills remain a major cause for concern.”
Meanwhile, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the consumer advice service, has experienced a surge in enquiries since it started taking direct calls from consumers in April this year. Calls for advice increased by almost 30% from 67,000 in April to an estimated 85,000 by the end of August.
If you have an issue with any company, in the first instance you must complain directly. It’s good practice to keep a note of the time and date of any call, and who you have spoken to. Any correspondence should be sent recorded delivery so you have a record of your complaint.
If your problem involves energy billing or meter readings, it's important take note of gas and electricity meter readings, and record the dates on which they were taken.
Energy suppliers have a set time limit in which to resolve most complaints. This time limit is eight weeks. If your complaint reaches a deadlock situation, contact the Ombudsman. You must send your claim to the Ombudsman within nine months of submitting the original complaint to your energy supplier.
The Ombudsman service is independent and free to use. The Ombudsman has the power to decide what action should be taken and can force an energy supplier to take action.
For mobile phone users, make sure you fully understand usage limits. The Ombudsman can help and you can also get guidance from the communications regulator Ofcom – although it won’t help with individual cases.
Ombudsmen Services for energy and communications disputes
Citizen's Advice Bureau
Online shopping: know your rights
Online shopping can be problematic. Many people will have been ripped off at some point by hidden online charges while booking a holiday, premium rate helplines when returning a purchase or extra credit card fees if you don’t use your debit card.
UK policymakers last week opened a consultation on the EU’s Consumer Rights Directive.
If approved, it will ban retailers and service providers from adding surcharges at the end of the online buying process; double the time after which online customers may cancel orders without loss; and ban the use of premium rate phone numbers for customer services.
Also, firms will be prevented from charging their customers more than it costs them to process a card payment or make a delivery.
The new rules have to take effect by April 2014, but the government wants to introduce them in 2013. Until then it’s crucial to know your consumer rights.
- Online customers can cancel an order, without explanation, within seven days.
- Your plastic gives you protection. If you pay using a credit card, you are also protected by the Consumer Credit Act 1975. The card provider is equally responsible with the retailer or trader for any breach of contract or misrepresentation. This can be useful if the retailer goes bust or you cannot contact it. Card providers are liable only for goods or services costing between £100 and £30,000. Alternatively, if you pay with a Visa debit card, you get protection under the Chargeback Scheme. There is no minimum spend and you must claim within 120 days.
Holly Thomas is Deputy Personal Finance Editor at the Sunday Times.