I am not good with bills. If they are large, they nestle deep in my in-tray until the blood-red reminders become uncomfortably threatening. If they are not too painful, I pay them quickly and throw them away.
The electricity bills from E.ON have tended to be in the latter category – until last Friday when the postman brought a large envelope containing a 20-page electricity bill, with entries dating back to April 2003. It was for £5914.98.
First I panicked. Then I asked for advice from Twitter. All the evidence suggested that a bill covering under-charging - ‘back-billing’ as it is called - can only cover 12 months, not a year.
I don’t usually like using my newspaper column to write about my own domestic issues, but this seemed to be one worth airing in the public interest. If I was being hit with mad, unexplained bills, how many other people were? So I told the story in Tuesday’s Independent.
The response from E.ON to my article and to coverage on Twitter was, in a sense, impressive. Suiddenly they were terribly concerned about me. I received tweets with smiley-faces and caring messages telling me they were there from me. There were several telephone calls – helpful, polite, above all, apologetic - from a Customer Service Manager.
It was all a terrible mistake, apparently. “Human error” was the mantra of the moment. Here, in summary, was what I asked and the replies I received.
How did I come to have a £5914.98 bill? It should never have been sent out to you. It was human error. We’re so sorry.
Yes, but what was it? A meter belonging to someone else was being charged to your account over the past ten years.
But what of all the readings taken from my meter? They must have been rejected by the computer.
Why had no one rung me or spoken to me about the problem? One of the meter readers had wanted to speak to your partner but she had seemed a bit busy so … he didn’t.
Why was a bill covering 10 years compiled when only a year’s back-billing could legitimately be charged? That would be human error again.
Quite quickly my bill was reduced to almost exactly a tenth of what it had been a few days ago, including a reduction of £75 as compensation for the time I had spent on the problem.
There remain three rather important unanswered questions:
If someone, perhaps vulnerable, perhaps scared of being left without power in the dead of winter, had paid the bill, would E.ON have rejected it as having been unfairly extracted?
If I had not had a public voice in the media, would E.ON have been so helpful and solicitous?
How many instances of ‘human error’ go undetected every week – to the huge profit of E.ON and other energy companies?
The key document for those who have received bills referring to alleged underpayments in the past is from the trade body, the Energy Retail Association. You can find it here.