Saturday, June 3, 2023

SSE and Ovo: prepay meter pain and distressing demands

I have a serious issue with SSE Energy, as every time I top up my prepayment meter, it puts 70% of the money towards the debt on my account.

Over four days, the company has taken £77 out of £110 of top-ups. I’m a single mum with two children and can’t afford repayments at this level but no one will listen.

I have had some financial difficulties and owe it about £1,000. Over a year ago it installed a prepayment meter and everything was going OK until Friday 21 April.

I had used all my emergency credit, so topped up my gas with £40. Out of the blue, it put £28 towards my debt and gave me a £12 gas credit.

On the Sunday I put another £30 on the meter. Again, £21 went to debt and £9 towards gas. The next day I called the company helpline and was told I would not be charged this rate when I next topped up.

So I loaded on another £40 but again £28 went towards debt, leaving £12 for gas. Realising that 70% of my top-up money was going on debt repayments, I called and explained it was too much.

I was told that 70% was the standard rate and I explained, again, that I could not afford to pay that much. I also asked if I could benefit from the government’s breathing space scheme.

After requesting to speak to a manager, I got a call back that evening. They advised me to top up with £10 to allow the 70% to be taken, as it was a weekly rate.

When I told her I got charged 70% every time, she promised to look into it and to call back within 24 hours. Two days on and I have not heard anything.

I work as a freelance and am on universal credit. I also suffer from clinical depression. SSE has all this information. Can you help?

SL, London

My 95-year-old cousin JF has been receiving payment demands from Ovo Energy since January. This is very distressing for her, and she is worried it could lead to bailiffs breaking into her flat to install a prepayment meter.

She has never been an Ovo customer. Her supplier is Octopus Energy. She has tried writing to the company and returning the letters.

I contacted Ovo via webchat and it told me to send the letters back. I also tried calling them but got cut off without a resolution. I am at a loss as to what to do next. The letters keep coming.

JK, Cardiff

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This week’s column is devoted to Ovo Energy after it managed to stand out in an inbox full of complaints about energy companies.

At a time when the industry’s use of prepayment meters is under fierce scrutiny, the rate of clawback on SL’s debt was concerning. Not least because Ovo (it bought SSE’s retail arm in 2020) was one of the companies that gave pay-as-you-go customers a debt recovery “holiday” during the winter months.

The collection of debt is managed by the “debt recovery rate”, or DRR, set on the meter. There is no industry standard for this; however, all energy firms must consider the customer’s ability to pay and set the DRR accordingly. Being charged at this level is clearly not sustainable for you, and the advice given by Ovo’s call handlers has been confusing at best.

We asked Ovo to look into the matter urgently and, upon investigating, it told us the DRR had been incorrectly inputted on its system. This has now been rectified and a £49 credit applied to your account. You have also accepted an £80 goodwill gesture. The company has now discussed debt repayment options with you and referred you to its vulnerability team for support.

You mentioned breathing space (sometimes called the debt respite scheme), which can give you up to 60 days’ space from creditors to focus on getting debt advice and setting up a debt solution. It is not a payment holiday; however, it would prevent action being taken against you if you’re unable to pay.

Meanwhile, poor JF has received 10 letters – and counting – demanding payment for a rogue Ovo account. The most recent letter said the debt had reached almost £600.

The company has looked into this matter, too, and it tells us the flat address was incorrectly logged on the national database.

It has apologised and insists the error has been put right. This should stop the letters. If any more arrive, return them to sender.

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