How my lines got crossed when I switched electricity suppliers

Have you made the Big Switch yet? I did in March this year when I moved from two large energy and phone suppliers to a smaller, cheaper one, and managed to shave more than £200 off my bills. The only trouble is I have been paying twice for the privilege.

I joined the UK's growing band of switchers when I was approached by a rep from TelecomPlus, a new indirect access supplier. I had heard good reports about the company and liked its prices, so I decided to sign, filling in the forms and waiting for the change-over.

TelecomPlus, which buys from the cheapest sources, duly contacted my suppliers, Seeboard and British Telecom, and a fortnight later both companies wrote to me saying how sorry they were I was leaving and that if I changed my mind they would be happy to welcome me back.

Then I had a second letter from Seeboard. The company said it had raised an objection to moving my gas supply as the next bill was due. "We can only agree to a transfer when you have paid for your latest usage," the company said. So I did just that, expecting my next little brown envelope to come from my new supplier.

But I waited and waited and waited and it never arrived. Puzzled, I checked my bank statements and, to my surprise, found I was still paying Seeboard for gas even though all my electricity was now coming from the alternative source.

When I contacted TelecomPlus, a spokesman said: "Seeboard objected to the move. It usually happens when a customer has an outstanding bill or change of address, though they never tell us precisely why. We should have sent you a letter explaining the objection together with a second 'change of supplier' form. I'm sorry it never arrived and you've ended up in limbo-land."

I contacted energywatch, an independent gas and electricity watchdog. A spokesman said a third of all UK power switchers end up with one or more transfer problems and that, from April, 2002, to March this year, the organisation had dealt with 34,000 dissatisfied switchers.

"It's a pretty appalling state of affairs that's caused by the complicated IT back-up systems and administration teams of the large power suppliers," the spokesman said. "There are a staggering 40 problems that can arise when a customer makes a switch. So it's not surprising suppliers are quick to raise an objection, because it helps to prevent further problems as well as the loss of valuable customers."

Happily, the problem has been resolved and normal supply restored. I am now a fully-fledged member of the UK's new home supply club, together with 11 million electricity and eight million gas users, as figures from Ofgem, the power regulator, confirm.

Naively, I thought telephone switching would be more straightforward. Ten million UK home users and 16 per cent of SMEs (small and medium-sized companies) have changed suppliers since the Big Switch began four years ago, some doing a double and moving their mobiles to cheaper suppliers at the same time.

An Oftel spokesman said: "We haven't had many complaints. All the mistakes were made in the early stages of switching, and most of the lessons have been learnt." With one exception: billing. When I checked my bank statements, I found I had been paying BT two direct debits of £120 and £50 a month over the past four months, although I switched one phone line to TelecomPlus in March.

I should have been paying BT £19 a month (£9.50 for two line rentals) as well as my call charges to TelecomPlus. I had switched the first line to get cheaper call costs, I kept the second, for incoming calls and broadband, with BT, and was to pay only monthly rental.

When I contacted BT, a spokesman said: "We are very sorry about this. There has been some confusion. We cannot find any notes about the switching of your phone account. Customers on monthly payment plans like yours have to contact their banks to change or cancel their payments when they switch, because we have no authority to speak to banks or building societies. We have had a lot of complaints like yours and I believe changing monthly plans and direct debits is a service we should provide for customers, although at present we cannot do so because we are bound by what our BT directors tell us. Like a lot of large organisations, we sometimes find the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing."

It took a few days to sort out the over-charging problem, and this week BT agreed to refund the money.

The chief culprit stalling the progress of the Big Switch seems to be a silent war between rival suppliers. An Ofgem spokesman said: "We want suppliers to start speaking to one another. Nearly all these problems are caused because they fail to do so."

The other reason is a breakdown between banks and suppliers. A TelecomPlus manager said: "From now, we will ask all potential customers to contact their suppliers before they switch to us to avoid all these problems and confusion."

So, if you have not made the Big Switch yet, do not switch off when you do. Or you may end up paying more, not less, for your canny economy drive.

WHAT TO DO TO AVOID CONFUSION

* Always contact your present supplier before you switch to a new one, to prevent any money or billing mix-ups.

* Make sure you have paid all bills and notify any change of address to your old supplier when you switch. If you do not they will lodge a formal objection to your move.

* After switching, contact your bank or building society and cancel your previous supplier's standing order or direct debit, so you do not pay two suppliers at the same time.

* If you switch from BT, you must still pay your telephone line rental. Make sure this is set up at your bank or building society.

* Make sure all direct debits and standing orders are set up with your new supplier/s to prevent any problems.

* If you have a switching snag, try to resolve it with your new or old supplier.

* If that fails, contact energywatch for gas or electricity snags and Oftel for telephone hold-ups.

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