Thousands of customers are being penalised by their utility providers for wanting bills sent through the post.
Almost all major telecoms giants now charge customers between £1 and £3 for each paper bill that they receive.
Telecoms watchdog Ofcom says firms are allowed to bill customers a ‘reasonable fee’ to cover the extra cost of posting statements.
Almost all major telecoms giants now charge customers between £1 and £3 for each paper bill
But experts warn firms are using these fees to profiteer from their most vulnerable customers, with the real cost of providing a paper bill estimated to be no more than 45p.
Regulator Ofcom told Money Mail it has raised concerns with Britain’s biggest provider, BT, over its £3 per statement charge.
Some energy firms also charge extra for paper statements, while nine out of ten of the cheapest tariffs are only available online.
At the end of last year we called on readers to write to us if their utility provider forces them to pay to receive paper bills.
Since then, we have been inundated with dozens of handwritten letters from pensioners who call the charges ‘excessive’, ‘unfair’ and ‘ageist’.
Many say it is impossible for them to switch to online billing as they do not own a computer and cannot afford to get one.
Around 4.5 million adults did not use the internet in 2018, according to Office for National Statistics figures. More than half of these people were aged 75 and over.
Others say that even though they have a tablet computer to browse online and send emails, they do not feel comfortable using the internet for banking and bills.
Loyal customers pay £3 for a bill
Britain’s biggest broadband and landline provider, BT, which has around 30 million customers, now charges more for paper bills than any other telecoms firm.
The firm first introduced a £1.50 charge for each paper bill in 2013. In 2017 this was hiked to £1.90, then to £2.50 in early 2018. It rose again, to £3, in September last year.
It means that customers must now pay up to an extra £36 a year if they receive a statement every month — or £12 for quarterly bills.
Money Mail reader Sue Pike, 71, says she was ‘incensed’ to learn of the charge.
The mother of two, from Framlingham, Suffolk, has been a BT customer for around 30 years and currently pays around £50 a month for her landline and broadband.
But when she recently called to check her latest bill, she discovered she was also paying £3 a month just for paper bills.
Sue was so annoyed she asked if she could leave her contract early, but was told she would have to pay a £359 exit fee.
Sue, a widow, says: ‘Charging £3 per month just to receive paper bills is extortionate — when you think of it as £36 a year, it’s a total rip-off.
‘I go online to check and send emails, but I wouldn’t ever do banking or bills online because you always read about people getting scammed and losing money.’
Valerie Born, 81, a widow from Dawlish, Devon, has also complained to BT about the charges.
Annual fee: Tony Guy, 90, from Coventry, pays TalkTalk £24 a year for paper statements while Janet Gwilliam, 80, from Brocton, Staffordshire pays the Post Office £18 a year for them
But despite six decades of loyalty to the company, the grandmother of four was told she must either switch to online bills or pay £3 a quarter on top of the £150 she pays for landline and broadband. Valerie, a retired bookkeeper, says: ‘I don’t have a computer and I refuse to be drawn into using email.
‘I have a tablet that I use to look things up but I would never use it for my banking or bills.
‘When I was working in business you would put a loyal customer first, but this loyalty means nothing any more.’
Peter Hill, 68, says he felt he had no choice but to switch to online bills after discovering BT was going to start charging him £12 a year just for four paper statements.
The retired biochemist, who lives with his wife Jane, 63, in Caunsall near Kidderminster, in Worcestershire, says: ‘I would prefer to have a paper bill so I can sit down and go through it — but for me £12 is £12 and I was not going to pay it.
‘We already pay £65 every month for our landline and sports television package.’
‘BT obviously wants to generate dividends for its shareholders, but this sort of thing is punishing the elderly and those who can’t use the internet.’
BT says it will waive the fee for anyone who does not have internet in their home, so it is definitely worth calling to check if you are paying it unnecessarily.
However, many television packages now require you to pay for broadband even if you do not use a computer.
BT also doesn’t charge customers on its basic package, which is only available for customers on certain benefits, such as Income Support and Pension Credit.
The telecoms firm’s Line Rental Plus package also includes free paper bills.
…But postage only costs 45p
TalkTalk has the next most expensive fee at £2 per bill, which rose from £1.90 in 2017 and £1.48 in 2011. Virgin Media and Sky each charge £1.75, while the Post Office’s fee is £1.50.
Mobile phone providers also charge for paper bills. Vodafone charges £1.54, Three and EE £1.50 and O2 £1 (or £1.50 if the bill is itemised).
Of all the telecoms firms contacted by Money Mail, Plusnet is the only one which says it does not charge for paper statements.
Sky, Virgin Media, Post Office and TalkTalk say they waive the charge for customers who are registered with accessibility needs and offer special-format paper bills, including Braille or large print, for free.
Ofcom has banned firms from charging customers to access their bills electronically. But it says that a reasonable fee for paper bills is fair as long as they can justify the cost.
Yet when Money Mail asked telecoms firms to explain how much it costs to provide paper bills, and what proportion of the charge they pocket, they refused to say.
Judith Donovan, chairman of campaign group Keep Me Posted, claims it costs between 30p and 45p to print and send statements.
When Nationwide scrapped its annual paper statement last year, it said they cost just 31p each to send. Ms Donovan says: ‘If this is not back-door profiteering I don’t know what is. There are lots of reasons why people want to receive statements through the post.
‘Some may not have access to the internet due to disability or poverty, or because they live in a rural area. Others may feel more confident managing their money with paper bills. It is about giving people the choice.’
Punished for not being online
At 90 years old, Tony Guy does not feel confident learning how to use a computer in order to manage his bills online.
The retired painter and decorator from Coventry worries about scams and thinks being online will make him an easy target for crooks.
So when TalkTalk told him he was paying an additional £2 per bill to receive them through the post, he felt utterly let down.
This means that Tony forks out an additional £24 a year on top of the £25 a month he pays to use his landline telephone.
Tony, who lives alone, says: ‘These companies just don’t want anything to do with my generation of customers any more.
‘I have been with TalkTalk for around 15 years and this is the reward for being a loyal customer.’
After Money Mail contacted TalkTalk, it offered Tony paper bills free of charge for two years.
Widow Janet Gwilliam, 80, does not own a computer either, and says she would not know where to start if she had to use one.
The grandmother of five currently pays around £13 a month for her landline contract with the Post Office, which includes her charge of £1.50 for each paper bill she receives.
Previously, this worked out at £6 a year as she only received quarterly statements. But after signing up for a new deal last May, she will now get one each month, increasing her annual paper bill fee to £18.
The retired laboratory assistant, who lives in the Staffordshire village of Brocton, says: ‘I know it’s only £1.50, but paying that per month when you’re a pensioner on a fixed income is a bit excessive.’
Experts warn firms are using these fees to profiteer from customers, with the real cost of providing a paper bill estimated to be no more than 45p
She adds that her new bills do not even break down the full list of calls she makes.
Terence Walker, 66, also feels he is being pushed to get a computer when he does not want one.
The retired decorator was one of a small number of TalkTalk customers wrongly sent a letter in November claiming the firm’s fee for paper bills was rising from £2 to £2.95 a month. TalkTalk says the letters were sent in error and that the charge is remaining at £2 a month — or £24 a year.
But Terence, who lives in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, says the fee is still too high. It is added to his £28.50-a-month broadband and landline bill.
‘I appreciate it costs money to send something in the post, but surely not this much,’ he says.
‘I’m not computer-literate and I just don’t see why I should be pushed online. I only use broadband to watch television.
‘If another company offered a good deal with cheaper paper bills, perhaps I would switch.’
Energy firms are charging too
Households without a computer are already missing out on the cheapest energy deals.
Nearly half of all tariffs offer a discount if customers are willing to manage their account via the internet, according to comparison site uSwitch. Of the top ten energy deals currently on offer, nine are only available online, its figures show.
Some suppliers are now also charging extra for paper bills.
Great-grandmother Phyl Castle, 78, from Benfleet, Essex, has been an Ovo Energy customer for around three years. She lives with her partner James Cox, 80, and pays around £137 a month for gas and electricity.
But in November the provider wrote to say she would now be charged £5 for each quarterly bill she received — an extra £20 a year. The retired music teacher says: ‘When I got this letter I was upset. I’m on a basic pension. There must be lots of older people, like myself, who are also on a small income.
‘I have an iPad but don’t feel comfortable dealing with finances online, so didn’t feel I had any choice other than to pay. Companies today want us to do everything on the computer, but that’s not what me or any of my friends want.’
If you are on the Priority Services Register, which includes customers classed as vulnerable, or those with a disability or long-term medical conditions, firms can’t charge for bills.
Ovo says it has always reserved the right to charge £5 every three months for paper bills. But it has now agreed to refund Phyl and James and waive the charges in the future.
An Ovo spokesman says: ‘To be added to the Priority Services Register, customers can contact us and receive tailored support to help manage their account.’
James Daley, from campaign group Fairer Finance, says: ‘Charging for paper bills penalises and excludes the most vulnerable in society. I would argue it is discriminatory.
‘The big firms should be leading the way on abolishing this practice and standing up for the people who need their support.’
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, says: ‘Many older people are not online, so it is vital services such as paper bills remain available.
‘If not we will create a situation where many older people have to rely on others to manage their money, eroding their independence and increasing the risk of fraud.’
An Ofcom spokesman says: ‘While a reasonable amount for paper bills is fair, we have raised our concerns with BT about its charges. We would expect a supplier to be able to explain how a fee has been arrived at.’
A BT spokesman says: ‘We’re not aware of a complaint, but we know Ofcom continually reviews charges across the industry, and we do meet with it regularly to discuss changes.
‘Fewer and fewer of our customers are asking for paper bills, and we are also trying to reduce the impact of paper billing on the environment.
‘Customers can easily avoid a paper bill charge by switching to paper-free billing. Those who aren’t online as they don’t have internet access at home through BT or any other provider will not be charged.’
A Post Office spokesman says: ‘The £1.50 charge for paper bills covers the cost of things such as printing and postage.’