Eircom hits 30,000 with bumper bills of up to €500
Error leaves phone users owing up to €500 arrears
THOUSANDS of Eircom customers are to be hit with bumper bills after the company failed to collect their direct debits since the start of the year.
The payments blunder has left around 30,000 customers facing unexpected backdated demands of up to €500 each, the Irish Independent has learned.
Although the company admits the systems mess is its fault, it will not be crediting customers' accounts – and is instead asking customers to pay for several months in one go.
Some people are now up to five months in arrears, as no payments have been taken since October.
"We will not be crediting customers' accounts but we are always happy to work with customers who have any difficulties meeting their payments. This will be discussed with individual customers," Eircom said.
The spokeswoman confirmed the unpaid amounts would be sought in the next bills sent to customers.
Over the last few months, the customers were getting letters from Eircom telling them that their bills were up to date, but the amounts were not taken from their bank accounts.
The telecoms giant, who has two million customers, blamed a "systems error". Those affected include a mixture of phone and broadband customers who opt to pay by monthly direct debit.
It mainly affects those on bundles – people who get landline and broadband services from the company.
In a letter to affected customers, it said it would reimburse a failed direct debit fee of €18.45 that was imposed on its customers. But it refused to offer them a credit on their bills to compensate for the blunder.
Chairman of the Consumers' Association of Ireland Michael Kilcoyne said he was aware of the bills fiasco, which he said went back to last October.
Mr Kilcoyne, who is also a county councillor in Mayo, was approached by people being asked to pay bills of €300 and €400 in one go.
He called on Eircom to give customers a credit on their bills worth half of the amount that went uncollected for months.
"People think they have paid their Eircom bills. They saw extra money in their bank accounts and have since spent the money on other things like shoes for children," Mr Kilcoyne said.
"It is a bit rich for Eircom to now expect these people to pay huge bills in the next month or six weeks. The company should credit half the amount owed to customers' bills."
He accused the telecoms group of having repeated problems with its bill collections system. People who had switched to other providers were still being charged by Eircom up to a year later, he claimed.
The company blamed a new European-wide payments system that was introduced in the past few months, known as the Single European Payments Area (Sepa).
It was still investigating what exactly went wrong, but insisted the problem had been rectified.
"We regret that, due to a system error related to the implementation of SEPA payments, up to 30,000 Eircom customers did not have some or all of their monthly direct debit payments taken from their bank accounts for phone, broadband and TV service since January," Eircom added in its statement.
Eircom said the customers received their bills as usual, which incorrectly stated that their bills had been paid by direct debit from their accounts.
A copy of the letter Eircom sent to its customers
"Once this error came to light, we immediately established a customer contact plan including phone calls and letters to advise them of the issue.
"Each customer's next bill will reflect the full amount due to be paid via direct debit."
The telecoms company said customers will receive a letter in advance of their bill arriving.
It has set up a special phone line on 1800 303 432, which is open until 8pm, to deal with queries.
"We sincerely apologise for this error and can assure customers that this error has now been rectified," the Eircom statement added.
One customer who contacted the Irish Independent said he was furious about the incident. He said the letter he received from Eircom, headed 'uncollected direct debit payment', was confusing.
The letter states he now owes €272, but when he discussed the matter on the phone with Eircom, it emerged that he now has a build-up of €500 in arrears.
A spokesman for energy regulator ComReg said it was looking into the matter.
The Eircom billing mix-up is just the latest in a long list of payments mishaps to impact consumers.
Last week, AIB defended its electronic payments systems after the latest blunder saw customers overcharged.
In January, Bank of Ireland customers were debited twice for single transactions involving mainly Visa debit cards.
At Christmas, AIB and Bank of Ireland were hit by payment blunders that impacted thousands of shoppers.