Sun. Apr 2nd, 2023

The gas and power company Sumo Energy ran a disconnection event in 2020 where employees recorded customer names and the number of customers with not paid their payments to the “wall of shame” and removed 143 of them with no warning.

An investigation conducted by the Victorian Essential Services Commission into Sumo’s strategy to disconnect many customers in the run-up to the Christmas holiday in 2020 has identified a “concerning compliance culture” within the company, which led to fines of $500,000 for illegal disconnections.

On the 14th of December in 2020, when a lot of Victorians were in financial distress because of the COVID-19 lockdowns Sumo reported that it had cut off 142 customers from gas or power before the legally mandated warning period of six days had ended. Another customer was shut off without warning, despite having actively participated in a payment plan the investigation revealed.

Commission member Kate Symons said electricity and gas are essential services and consumers should only be cut off by retailers in the “measure of last resort”.

The investigation revealed that Sumo had come up with a plan to cut off 1500 customers before Christmas. They also changed billing plans for customers to accelerate disconnections and reduce the amount of time needed to give customers the opportunity to seek assistance.

“It contained the names of customers who Sumo wanted to remove by taped to a wall staff described as”the “wall of shame”. It also set up a distinct telephone line and employees were instructed to move customers who inquired about an imminent or real disconnect to the queue. Wait times for calls were lengthy at around 45 minutes in the average and some customers dropping out,” Commissioner Symons said.

“Customers being disconnected from essential services in this way is completely unacceptable.”

Bendigo women Sarah Neiman, 43, claimed she was unsuccessful in trying to reach Sumo repeatedly to set up an installment plan prior to when her power went out. “I tried to call back and call back, but there was no answer,” she claimed. “It caused me to be in a bind – everything I stored in the refrigerator and it went out and I was left with no food or electricity … I had to move to the home of a friend for a couple of days.”

Ms. Neliman claimed that she was in financial difficulties at the time, and the manner in which Sumo was treating her made her more upset.

Sumo Energy was contacted for comments on Monday.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in the year 2020 The Essential Services Commission issued a “statement of expectations” to the energy sector outlining guidelines retailers must follow to help customers who are struggling financially. It demanded that companies offer payments plans for all residential and small business customers, to avoid interruptions and avoid referring customers to debt collection agencies.

“When those orders were lifted in November 2020, it appeared from the evidence that Sumo had been keen to resume disconnections,” Commissioner Symons. “Sumo’s board and executive management were involved in and aware of Sumo’s approach to disconnecting customers.”

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