One of the country’s biggest energy retailers has been slapped with penalties totalling $1.125 million for allegedly placing conditions on providing assistance to vulnerable customers in Victoria.
The state’s energy regulator, the Essential Services Commission (ESC), issued Alinta Energy with 75 penalty notices for causing distress to customers suffering hardship by making them ‘provide financial information before agreeing to set up payment plans’.
ESC Chairperson Kate Symons said the investigation uncovered a number of incidents where Alinta Energy customers were unnecessarily placed under further pressure due to a range of personal circumstances.
“This included vulnerable customers like single parents on limited incomes, people who were unemployed or affected by family violence and some with serious health issues,” she said.
Vulnerable customers are protected under retail rules in Victoria, which do not involve disclosing any personal or financial details.
“Alinta Energy placed unnecessary barriers before they would provide assistance, contrary to the requirements of the Energy Retail Code,” said Ms Symons.
It is alleged that Alinta Energy required vulnerable customers to seek financial counselling in order to be granted a continuation of their payment plan.
“By imposing conditions on customers before allowing them to access assistance, Alinta exacerbated the harm already being experienced.”
It comes after the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) announced it will be enforcing harsher penalties on retailers that break the rules.
Alinta Energy has paid penalties of $1.125m for allegedly putting conditions on providing help to distressed customers, despite the requirements of Victoria’s energy rules. Commission chairperson @k_symons says the case uncovered evidence of serious harm: https://t.co/owpAZaE0z8 pic.twitter.com/8wVaQTg6hG
— ESC Victoria (@EssentialVic) February 4, 2021
Alinta Energy: “We’re Sorry”
In a statement, Alinta Energy has acknowledged its wrongdoing and is committed to reviewing its practices to ensure events of this nature are prevented, said Alinta Energy Managing Director and CEO, Jeff Dimery.
He said: “This occurred because training materials for some of Alinta Energy’s call centre agents were not adequately reviewed, and it had serious consequences for some of our customers – in this case, our most vulnerable customers. We failed these customers. We got it wrong, and I am deeply sorry. These customers were asking for help, and they didn’t get that from us. What they were told was wrong, confusing and unfair – and that is unacceptable.
“We are committed to doing better for our customers, and will continue to strengthen policies and processes across our business to try to ensure something like this can’t happen again.”
The ESC and Alinta Energy noted that the debt of affected customers has since been waived and that additional training will be taking place.
Energy retailers and your rights as a customer
All power companies have customer hardship policies, which should follow the rules enforced by energy regulators like the ESC and AER. In some cases, it may come down to the retailer failing to identify a vulnerable customer or provide them with enough support to place customers on suitable payment plans.
In fact, retailers have been caught out recently for a range of different reasons, such as an IT error behind Origin paying $120,000 in penalties for wrongfully disconnecting customers. Another case occurred late last year when EnergyAustralia was ordered to pay $1.5 million for failing to protect hardship customers.
For Aussies struggling to pay electricity bills, the message is simple; contact your provider and talk through your options, said Canstar Blue Editor-in-Chief, Simon Downes.
“If you’re having difficulty paying bills and you’re worried about falling behind on payments, the first thing to do is to call your power company to discuss the situation. This way you’ve alerted your retailer that you’re in need of financial assistance, and in return, your retailer can proceed with the most suitable course of action according to your personal circumstances.”