- Privacy war breaks out as suppliers move customers onto PAYG plans remotely
- Move puts them at risk of blackouts if they cannot afford to top-up their balance
- Households are being left in the dark and without heating for weeks at a time
- Some 500 customers believed to have been put on prepayment plans this year
Lisa Bonner was getting ready for the school run on a crisp morning two months ago when an email from her energy supplier popped up on her phone.
The message sent her into a panic. EDF was writing to inform her that the supply to her three-bedroom semi had been switched to a so-called prepayment meter.
That meant from then on, the mother of three and her husband Nick, 51, would have to keep their account topped-up at all times — or their power might be cut off suddenly.
Not only that, but their bills were likely to be even higher because the pay-as-you-go prepayment tariff would be pricier than their old one.
The worst part? The 45-year-old, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, hadn’t given EDF her permission for the switch.
The firm was able to take matters into its own hands because Lisa had agreed to install a smart meter in her home six months previously.
Thanks to the high-tech devices — which show your energy usage in real time and send meter readings automatically to suppliers — energy firms can switch customers on to different tariffs remotely.
And, crucially, if a household does not pay, gets into debt or fails to pay bills on time, the supplier can use a smart meter to turn off their power. All it takes is the click of a button in an office hundreds of miles away.
By the end of this winter, consumer charity Citizens Advice estimates 180,000 households will have been switched to prepayment plans via their smart meter.
Suppliers say they are doing this to stop families running up large debts. The average dual-fuel energy bill has risen to £2,500 a year — or more than £200 a month — and many families are expected to struggle to keep up payments.
While moving customers to prepayment meters could help them manage their outgoings, it will also make homes vulnerable to being cut off.
In simple terms, that means the risk of blackouts if they cannot afford to top-up their account balance regularly.
In the industry, switching customers onto prepayment plans is confusingly referred to as ‘self-disconnection’.
Citizens Advice says it has heard from 500 people who have been pushed onto prepayment meters this year — a 158 per cent rise on the same period in 2021.
In one case, a single mother with a young baby was moved remotely onto a prepayment plan while on maternity leave.
It meant she could not even boil the kettle to make bottles for her child and spent the night in the dark.
Some households have already been left without lights and heating for weeks at a time, according to regulator Ofgem.
An Ofgem spokesman says: ‘In extreme cases the reports we’ve received suggest this has led to some vulnerable customers being left without power for days or even weeks. This is completely unacceptable.’
Prepayment energy plans mean that customers have to top up their accounts themselves when their balance runs low.
With a smart meter, this is online via an app. Or households can use a prepayment keycard which can be topped up in post offices and PayPoint zones, often located in newsagents. The tariffs are more expensive, too.
Prepayment customers will spend an estimated £258 more on their energy this winter than someone paying by direct debit, according to research from Citizens Advice.
Get help with energy saving ideas in our guide to saving money on energy bills and understanding what you pay.
Prepayment meter switch no longer done face-to-face
In the past, suppliers had to send staff round to a customer’s house if they were in debt and the company wanted to change their payment plan.
But the widespread adoption of smart meters means firms no longer have to come face-to-face with the people that they are cutting off.
Firms typically try to move customers to prepayment plans only once they have fallen into debt on their accounts set up with a direct debit, and the supplier is struggling to get payment.
I couldn’t believe EDF was able to switch my account without my consent. I don’t know if we’ll be able to put the heating on now
However, rules set by Ofgem stipulate households must consent to the switch.
Lisa says that she had fallen into around £300 of debt on her energy account.
About a month before the switch to a prepayment meter, EDF cancelled her direct debit.
Although Lisa — whose children Fiona, seven, Madison, ten, and 12-year-old India all live at the family home — says she never consented to the change, EDF insists it sent her a warning letter about moving the account to a prepayment tariff.
‘I couldn’t believe EDF was able to switch my account without my consent,’ she says.
‘I don’t know if we’ll be able to put the heating on now.’
Earlier this month Ofgem wrote to suppliers warning that it had heard of ‘alarming’ cases where customers were not being consulted over these switches.
Ofgem would not say how it would be taking action against firms breaking its rules.
Lisa’s cancer diagnosis should have flagged her up as being a ‘vulnerable’ customer — meaning more protections should have been in place before a supplier shut off the power to her house.
EDF says it was unaware of Lisa’s illness, and insists her account was moved only as a last resort.
It notified her in August that her direct debit was being cancelled and says it sent several emails telling her how she could access support.
The company says it first sent a letter explaining its intention to push her onto a prepayment plan and she had a week to respond — which she failed to do.
She then had a further 14-day ‘non-disconnection’ period during which she could query her new plan.
But Lisa insists she had tried to call EDF to discuss her options before the company disconnected her.
If I was ever in a situation where I might not be able to afford my energy bills I would not touch a smart meter with a barge pole Data expert Nick Hunn
EDF accepts a call took place but says a resolution was not found at the time.
She says: ‘I have three girls, I’m now in a position where we might not be able to put the heating on.
‘If it gets to the last week of the month and we’re running low, I might not have a spare £10 to top the meter up.’
Some 29.5 million smart meters have been fitted in homes and small businesses across Britain.
They were sold to customers as a way to ensure that their bills were accurate by recording households’ energy usage in real time.
No mention has ever been made in publicity for the meters, that they can be used to cut families’ gas and electricity off remotely.
Data expert Nick Hunn, who runs technology consultancy WiFore, says that the situation is very worrying for consumers.
He adds: ‘Smart meters effectively give suppliers a button they can press to disconnect customers without having to send anybody round.
‘If I was ever in a situation where I might not be able to afford my energy bills I would not touch a smart meter with a barge pole.
‘When smart meters first started to be rolled out, the idea they could remotely disconnect households was always on suppliers’ minds.’
A Smart Energy GB spokesman says: ‘Suppliers should be following strict rules set by Ofgem, including offering ways to help customers repay money they owe.
And they can only switch a meter to prepay mode where it is safe to do so.
‘These rules apply whatever kind of meter you have.’
According to Ofgem rules, a supplier can only move you onto a prepayment meter as a last resort if your account has unpaid debt. However, it must write to you explaining that you have 28 days in which to pay off the arrears.
After that, it is able to write to you informing you that you are being moved to a prepayment meter.
But they must give seven days’ formal notice for a gas meter and seven working days’ notice for an electric one.
Suppliers cannot, however, force vulnerable customers — for example, those over the state pension age or those with children under five — to have a prepayment meter installed.
Once the debt has been repaid, customers can ask their energy supplier to be moved back onto a direct-debit account.