Energy giant hit with $1.125m fine for dudding customers
Energy giant Alinta Energy has been slapped with a $1.125 million fine for failing to help struggling customers who could not pay their bills.
The Essential Services Commission has dished out its biggest penalty ever for an energy retailer after it found Alinta caused immense distress to dozens of vulnerable customers.
Between October 2019 and March 2020 the company breached rules and put 75 Victorian customers experiencing hardship in even worse situations.
This included failing to help some who had suicidal thoughts, others missed bills due to a death in the family and many were worried about having their energy supplies disconnected.
Customers were told to ring and get free financial counsellors and then get the counsellor to deal with the retailer on their behalf.
The Commission's chairperson Kate Symons said Alinta's actions were "really disappointing".
"Energy businesses are required to assist those customers who are having trouble paying their bills," she said.
"This included vulnerable customers like single parents on limited incomes, people who were unemployed or affected by family violence and some with serious health issues.
"By imposing conditions on customers before allowing them to access assistance, Alinta exacerbated the harm already being experienced."
Under Victoria's rules energy companies are required to help customers who are struggling with their bills.
This includes offering flexible payment plans, deferral of a bill, how to access government support measures and ways to lower energy bills should be offered.
Alinta has more than 1 million gas and electricity customers and employs more about 800 people in Australia and New Zealand.
It provides energy to customers in Victoria, SA, NSW, southeast Queensland and WA.
Alinta's managing director and chief executive officer Jeff Dimery on Thursday issued an apology and said, "we failed these customers".
"We got it wrong and I'm deeply sorry," he said in an issued statement.
"These customers were asking for help and they didn't get that from us.
"What they were told was wrong, confusing and unfair and that is unacceptable."
Alinta waived the debt of affected customers and updated their customer service training to prevent the problem from occurring again.
The company also apologised to each impacted customer.
They have also recently announced moving their customer service team to Australia instead of operating from overseas.
It's not the first time the company owned by Hong Kong-based Chow Tai Fook Enterprises has come under fire.
In 2018 the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found they had made misleading electricity price comparisons which occurred when their average tariff reduction figure was reviewed.
It was found to be one per cent lower than the 2.8 per cent average reduction that was advertised.
Originally published as Energy giant hit with $1.125m fine for dudding customers