Energy suppliers employ dubious tactics to increase advance payments from Belgian customers

Energy suppliers employ dubious tactics to increase advance payments from Belgian customers
Credit: Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga.

Energy suppliers are employing increasingly dubious tactics to increase customers' advance payments, at a time when many Belgians are already unable to afford soaring energy costs and are resorting to extraordinarily desperate measures to stay warm over the winter period.

According to De Standaard, one especially questionable tactic used by suppliers involves notifying customers of an increase in advance payments, whilst conveniently failing to mention the fact that customers are legally entitled to a two-week period in which they may appeal against the decision.

"Some energy suppliers charge their customers but always 'forget' to tell them that they have fifteen days to oppose the proposed advance increase," said Federal Energy Ombudsman Eric Houtman. "As a result, some energy consumers think they have no other choice but have to accept the advance."

Such practices come in spite of the fact that a law was recently passed by the Belgian Parliament which explicitly prohibits energy suppliers from raising advance payments without clearly justifying the increase to (and seeking prior approval from) the customer.

"[Such methods] are not in the spirit of the law," Houtman added. "When consumers have good arguments as to why their advance payments should be much lower — for instance, they may have recently insulated their house, installed solar panels, or bought a more energy-efficient boiler — then the energy supplier has to take this into account."

Failure of enforcement

This is not the first time in recent memory that energy suppliers have been openly denounced by Belgian officials: in October, then-State Secretary for the Budget and Consumer Affairs Eva De Bleeker (Open VLD) explicitly stated that suppliers must "fix" their behaviour "or legal action will follow".

Ironically, one issue with the recently approved law is precisely that it does not clearly outline potential criminal penalties in the event of suppliers' non-compliance.

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"The law does not provide for criminal provisions," said current State Secretary for the Budget and Consumer Affairs Alexia Bertrand (Open VLD). "As a result, the Economic Inspectorate is not competent to enforce it."

In the meantime, Houtman is currently dealing with an explosion of complaints from energy consumers enraged by the nefarious practices of their suppliers.

"If a consumer comes to us with an advance payment dossier, we also inform the energy supplier concerned of the legal rules," he said. "Afterwards, the supplier in question sometimes reduces the amount, but this is by no means always the case."

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