Bills you don’t owe, menacing debt collectors: the terrifying world of energy company customers

Periodically, I electrify readers with a drama about energy bills. Before you switch off, let me assure you that utilities companies are masters of suspense. Read on if you dare:

Act I

Curtain up on an unhappy house in Oxfordshire. Owner XS has twice been informed that he owes Ovo nearly £37,000. This comes as a surprise to a man who is fully up to date with his payments. Ovo permits him and his sick wife several months of panic before realising that it, in fact, owes him £4,000.

He is promised it will be credited to his account. It isn’t. Ovo then decides it only owes £2,000. This isn’t refunded, either. Nor does it dispatch the promised technician to read the meter. It’s been failing to do that since 2017.

I enter, armed with a headline. Ovo squawks that the £37,000 is only a balance statement triggered by a faulty meter and its “systems” would have realised the absurdity of it before sending a bill. It belatedly gets around to installing a smart meter and pays £500 compensation.

Act II

The scene shifts to Edinburgh, where MP and his wife dare not leave their house for fear that strangers will gain entry and force a prepayment meter on them. MP is up to date with his payments, but it’s E.ON Next he’s paying, because it’s E.ON Next that supplies his energy.

That’s not good enough for Scottish Power. The letters from debt collectors begin as soon as the couple move early in 2022.

Initially, they were in the name of the previous owner, but Scottish Power is crafty. It tells MP that demands will continue to his address until it can trace the debtor and that, even though he is not the debtor, debt collectors will call “as part of the recovery process”.

When the Energy Ombudsman upholds MP’s complaint, Scottish Power uses personal details provided on his complaint to set up an account in his name. And dismisses £250 compensation as “excessive”. From then on MP is pursued personally for a debt of more than £5,000 and informed that bailiffs are applying for a warrant to enter his property.

Enter the Observer. Scottish Power discovers that a stranger’s energy meter was wrongly registered to MP’s address when it inherited the account from a defunct supplier. It blithely admits it harvested the details supplied to the ombudsman to open an account in MP’s name, despite its previous acknowledgments that he was not the debtor. It has now amended the meter database, called off the hounds and added another £250 to the compensation it previously failed to pay.


We’re still in Edinburgh, where RD’s 81-year-old father has been worn down by a year of letters and bills from Octopus addressed to “the householder” and demanding he identify himself.

He is not, and never has been, an Octopus customer and returned the mail to sender. That riles Octopus, which doesn’t want to miss out on the chance of something for nothing.

So it unleashes debt collectors who send demands in his name. Octopus eventually discovers someone else’s electricity meter has been registered to his address, but claims it’s powerless to correct the database and the weekly threats keep coming.

Octopus tells the Observer it never received the letters that RD’s father returned, and therefore had no idea there was a problem. It’s now stopped the demands.

Act IV

In London, DSN receives a menacing letter from a debt collector demanding £422 on behalf of British Gas. The debt relates to a house share he left in 2022.

DSN is bemused. He was not the named account holder in that house share. And the meter was prepayment. In vain does he explain this to British Gas, which reckons he should pay up regardless.

I have a go. This time it explains that, back in 2021, a tenant who predated DSN had informed the company that the house had a credit meter. So British Gas mindlessly wrote this down on its system and began conjuring bills addressed to the occupier during the year that DSN and his housemates were feeding the prepayment meter.

It adds vaguely that “someone” at some point supplied DSN’s name and so the demands were issued to him. It’s now cancelled the imaginary debt and apologised.

Act V

AW, a single lady living frugally in a small flat in Glasgow, is terrified by a £1,281 demand from British Gas. The bill suggests she’s used enough energy in a month to power a cannabis farm.

Her usual monthly consumption is less than £100 and recorded by a smart meter. British Gas is unmoved and insists she coughs up. AW becomes ill with worry.

Later, cowering in the media spotlight, British Gas blames a system upgrade. AW’s meter reading was mistyped when her account was migrated to a new platform, and she was billed for gas she’d already paid for. It offers her a £75 apology.

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