A relentless drive to paperless billing by energy suppliers, telecoms providers, banks and insurers has prompted an outcry from readers of The Mail on Sunday who say the trend is ‘disgraceful’ and ‘discriminatory’.
Companies are desperate to cut costs by emailing bills or statements rather than delivering hard copies in the post. So much so that many customers are now charged a fee if they choose to continue receiving a paper bill.
Though some consumers are happy with the move away from paper bills, many are not. It penalises people who do not use a computer, have poor internet connection at home or just like analysing their household expenditure on paper.
Paperless bills: Companies claim they are saving the planet, but customers says it’s a rip off
Companies typically suggest consumers can print bills at home. But this contradicts their argument that axing paper bills helps save the planet, and many households do not have a printer.
Since The Mail on Sunday highlighted the issue three weeks ago, dozens of readers have contacted us to tell how they have suffered from companies’ drive to wipe out paper bills and statements.
HOW CUSTOMERS ARE UNFAIRLY PENALISED
Robert and Marjorie (names have been changed) are pensioners in their 80s and are outraged at the inflated prices energy suppliers charge for offline accounts.
They live in Surrey and use EDF Energy for electricity and gas. When Robert enquired about a cheaper tariff earlier this year he was told they were on the best deal for offline customers.
But the difference between their deal and the cheapest for online customers receiving bills via email was £438 a year – amounting to a monthly paper penalty of £36.50.
EDF Energy says it is more cost-effective to run online-only accounts, particularly when customers pay by direct debit.
Barred: Dave Pettifer could not get TalkTalk bills by email
And it says the annual difference in cost for an average household on the keenest paper-based tariff compared to an online-only alternative is just £20.
But Robert says: ‘The truth is that customers who do not use the internet are being ripped off. It is unregulated discrimination and profiteering and unacceptable that we should be penalised in this way.’
A spokeswoman for EDF Energy says: ‘The differences individual customers see in price will be based on a range of factors, including how much energy they consume.
‘We offer our customers a diverse range of tariffs with different servicing and payment options to suit their needs. A wide range of factors affect how our prices are set.’
The company also points out that its electricity is backed by low-carbon generation.
In another glaring example, pensioner Dave Pettifer, 73, told how he is being prevented from going paperless by his phone and broadband provider TalkTalk because, incredibly, it says it is unable to send bills to his TalkTalk email address.
He agreed to paperless billing to eliminate the £2-a-month charge for receiving communication by post.
Dave, who lives near Hastings in East Sussex, says: ‘I have no idea why this is the case as I have never been given an explanation.’
He provided an alternative email, but this was also rejected because TalkTalk said it was already in use on another account. He suspects this may be from a previous contract he had with the company.
Many customers are now charged a fee if they choose to continue receiving a paper bill
The telecoms firm asked for a third email address before it could waive the paper bill fee. Dave refused and complained to the company, but he has yet to get anywhere, being met with several apologetic letters and correspondence with different complaint reference numbers.
He adds: ‘I am disappointed, not only in the shambolic way my complaint has been handled but also how it is that TalkTalk cannot seem to send out bills to me by email.’
A spokesman for TalkTalk says: ‘We apologise for Mr Pettifer’s recent experience. The email address has now been updated and we have provided credit to cover the paper bill charges applied.’
Reader Pauline Quail was angered by Nationwide Building Society’s decision to cease annual paper statements for savers.
She was also recently informed her travel insurer would no longer send policy documents in the post. Pauline says: ‘This lack of choice, forcing people to rely on the internet, is relentless.’
Meanwhile, another reader, Susan Cowley, says the lack of a paper bill from her water company means she now owes a ‘considerable’ debt.
Realising she had not received a bill for a while, she contacted the utility provider, only to discover that her account had been cancelled in error because it thought she had moved house. Others call the ruthless promotion of bills by email ‘disgraceful’ and ‘an erosion of choice’.
Judith Donovan is chairwoman of Keep Me Posted, a campaign seeking to protect and promote choice in how customers receive bills.
She argues that the cost of paper bills – estimated at between 30 and 45p – is not a reasonable excuse for axing them.
She says: ‘Companies offering paper bills often charge significantly more than it costs them. It represents a penalty to vulnerable customers who have no alternative. All customers should have the right to choose how they receive information from providers.’
She adds: ‘Businesses incur costs – that is how markets work. There is also a cost for maintaining branches, stores and phone lines.’
To find out more about the fight to protect choice visit keepmeposteduk.com or write to the campaign for an information pack at Keep Me Posted, PO Box 72064, London EC4P 4DZ.
How sending an email harms the environment
Environmental concern is often cited as the reasons for paperless billing. Yet customers are still encouraged to print out a bill at home.
Computers and printers also have an impact on the environment – as they quickly become outdated and are sent to landfill.
The ‘green’ approach seems to have bypassed some marketing departments, with many households continuing to receive junk advertisements in the post – particularly from telecoms providers.
According to Mike Berners-Lee’s book How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint Of Everything, an email with an attachment can be worth as much as 50g of carbon dioxide emissions.
By comparison, experts estimate that posting a letter is worth between 19g and 30g. This is because the electricity required to support the functions of a home computer is extensive – around 800 kWh over one year.
That electricity typically comes from power plants burning carbon fuels – which pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The contradiction is not lost on customers.
Tired of hearing the ‘green’ excuse, Steve Balfour, from Aberdeen, aired his views to The Mail on Sunday.
He says: ‘Companies often quote the environment as an excuse to remove the choice of paper billing.
‘Yet this claim is based on either ignorance or arrogance. Companies should at least be honest and admit that refusing to send paper invoices is a cost-cutting exercise.’