%VIRTUAL-SkimlinksPromo%Britain's biggest energy firms have been told by the regulator Ofgem to refund former customers more than£400 million held in closed accounts.
Consumer groups said it was "shocking" that the "Big Six" gas and electricity suppliers had kept such large sums and urged them to return the money as possible.
Energy Minister Greg Barker said the scale of the amounts involved was "astonishing".
Between them the Big Six companies - British Gas, EDF Energy, E.On, npower, ScottishPower and SSE - are holding at least £202 million from around 3.5 million former household customers, Ofgem found.
The energy firms have also retained £204 million from 300,000 closed business accounts.
The regulator said it had found "an unacceptably large" amount of money being retained rather than returned to customers, and a wide variation in company practices.
Ofgem's interim chief executive, Andrew Wright, said: "When many people are struggling to make ends meet, it is vital that energy companies do the right thing and do all they can to return this money and restore consumer trust.
"We want to see decisive action by suppliers, individually and collectively, to address this issue and, wherever possible, to ensure that the balances they currently hold are returned to consumers.
"Where this can't be done, any remaining sums should be used to benefit consumers more generally, and suppliers need to be very clear with consumers about what they will be doing with this money."
Mr Barker welcomed the regulator's announcement but added: "The scale of credit held in closed energy accounts that Ofgem has uncovered is astonishing, and I want to go further to ensure that, where possible, customers are rightly returned the money that is theirs."
Energy firms said they always refunded the money in closed accounts wherever possible and added that they were owed much larger sums by former customers who had not paid their bills.
But consumer groups said the companies should make more efforts to return the cash.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: "It's appalling that firms have been sitting on
hundreds of millions of pounds of customers' money, making little effort to return it.
"Hard-pressed households who are struggling to get by and businesses feeling the pressure on their finances would benefit from the money being in their pockets, not their energy company's bank account.
"Suppliers do not hold the purse strings of households in this country. If they have people's money, they should return it as soon as possible."
Richard Lloyd, executive director of consumer group Which?, added: "If true, it's shocking that some of the biggest energy companies are sitting on millions of pounds worth of consumers' cash.
"Suppliers must return this money as soon as possible and be clear about what customers need to do when they close accounts."
Comparison websites said many families have been forced to make the choice between "heating and eating" amid rounds of inflation-busting hikes to their bills.
Clare Francis, editor-in-chief of MoneySuperMarket, said: "It's little surprise that there is so little trust in the industry when things like this come to light.
"Before an individual can close an energy account and move to a new provider, they must pay off any money they owe to their existing provider, yet shockingly providers haven't necessarily been doing the same thing if they owe the customer money.
"It is therefore good news to see the regulator clamping down on this practice and calling on energy firms to return any money they have retained from former customers."
A spokesman for industry body Energy UK said: "Although companies are working to return money where there are credit balances, sometimes former domestic customers provide no new contact details so suppliers don't know how, or to whom, they can return the money.
"The most common reasons energy companies end up holding funds are when the bill payer has moved home or when a customer dies and suppliers have no record of the next of kin.
"Suppliers already agreed with ministers last year that they would take all reasonable steps to trace customers who leave a credit balance behind."
He added: "If you think you may be owed money, get in touch with your supplier past and present, to check if they have funds to return to you."
British Gas director Ian Peters said his company went "well beyond" its legal obligations to seek out customers owed money and had provided refunds to 10,000 people since 2012.
But he added: "Any credit owed to customers is significantly outweighed by the value of customer debt. At September 2013, the amount owed to household customers was £40 million, with customer debt five times that amount, at almost £200 million."
SSE said it took "all reasonable steps" to find customers and return their credit balances, and added that the bad debt it has written off in recent years is about four times the amount of credit it has not refunded.
Ofgem's announcement follows recent commitments by most major suppliers to automatically refund surpluses to current direct debit customers.
12 ways to save £10,000 in 2014
£400m in closed energy accounts
Mortgage rates are low at the moment, but even if you feel that your mortgage is a pretty good deal already, for a lot of borrowers there are better rates to be had. It's crucial to get the sums right – high upfront admin costs from a new lender or large early repayment fees from your existing mortgage provider could wipe out any savings. But, says David Hollingworth of brokers London & Country: "If you have an average standard variable rate (SVR) of 4.75%, a borrower with a £150,000 repayment mortgage over 20 years would pay £969.34 each month. Switching to a two-year fix with Norwich & Peterborough BS at 1.99% with £295 fee, free valuation and free legal work for remortgage would cut the payment to £758.11 a month, saving £211.23p.m." Over a year, that would mean a saving of £2,240, even with a £295 up front fee, and £2535 in following years. Potential saving: £2,535
Your home and contents insurance may be costing more than it needs to. Gocompare.comdata shows that 25% of customers who provided their buildings and contents insurance renewal price saved up to almost £160 by changing to a new provider. Potential saving: £160
With today's high cost of fuel, running a car is an expensive business. For a lot of people, particularly where public transport is sparse, giving up a car altogether is too big a challenge. But perhaps you could use it less, and take steps to bring down the cost of driving when it's unavoidable. The Energy Saving Trust says that just keeping your tyres pumped up correctly can save £31 a year, and turning off the air conditioning can save £77. Follow all the advice on the Energy Saving Trust's app, such as lift sharing and keeping your speed down, and the organisation claims you could save as much as £554 a year for a medium car covering medium mileage. Potential saving: £554
If you haven't changed car insurer recently, the chances are you could save a lot of money by doing so now. According to research from Consumer Intelligence for Gocompare.com, in October 2013, 51% of consumers could save up to £242.55 by moving to a new insurance provider. There are plenty of comparison sites to try, including AOL Compare, so it really doesn't take long to find a cheaper deal. Potential saving: £243
Start by finding out whether you could get a cheaper deal from a different energy supplier. If you haven't changed in the past, you probably can. According to gocompare.com, you could save around £309 a year just by switching to a cheaper deal (based on customers who switched energy supplier for both gas and electricity (dual fuel) using the Energylinx poweredGocompare.com platforms between 1 July and 30 September 2013).
Over the long term, there are plenty of ways to bring down bills that involve a relatively large outlay up front, such as ensuring your home is properly insulated. But just cutting your current energy use can have a huge impact on your energy bills. Some of the steps you can take are just a question of habit changing, such as switching appliances off instead of leaving them on standby. The Energy Saving Trust reckons the average household could save £50 and £90 a year just by unplugging or switching off at the socket. And turning down the washing machine temperature to 30 degrees, using a washing up bowl instead of leaving the tap running and only putting as much water in the kettle as you need can save you as much as £55 a year. Draught-proofing will save another £55, and proper 270mm loft insulation could save you up to £180 a year – taking into account the cost of fitting it the savings will take a couple of years to kick in. Potential saving: £689 (far more if you take all the right steps in the home)
Or at least, make your own. If you work in a town or city, the temptation to pop in and get a coffee can be strong. There's something comforting about sipping a hot coffee from those nice warm paper cups as you gear up for the working day. But if you stop to add up what it costs (including the cup), it may leave you cold. A Starbucks medium (OK, tall) latte costs £2.60 on the Strand in London. If you have one of those five days a week, 46 weeks a year (allowing for four weeks holiday), that means you are spending close to £600 – a tall price for a caffeine fix. If you make your own, a Bodum coffee maker costs £20 and a kilo of coffee costs around £13 and will make roughly 120 – 140. Missing the cup for the walk to work? Buy a Thermos mug for around £10. For £43, plus the price of milk, you can have coffee on the go all year round. Potential saving: £557
It's a familiar scenario for many well-intentioned would-be gym bunnies. You sign up super motivated. You buy new workout gear, perhaps you work out regularly at the start. But then something – a holiday, a nasty cold, late nights at work – breaks your momentum and you stop going to the gym. Eventually your workout clothes lounge around in the cupboard while the gym keeps your bank balance trim by taking that direct debit each month. Gym memberships vary, but if you pay £80 a month for full membership, that's £960 a year's worth of good intentions. Invest in some proper running shoes – you can spend a fortune but specialist shop Run and Become has decent shoes for £50 – and hit the road. Need motivation? Download a free app such as Couch to 5k to get you started and track your progress as you get fitter. Potential saving: £910
The range of mobile tariffs can be baffling. Many people end up on the wrong deal, perhaps paying for call time or extras they don't really need or use. There are a number of online tools and apps you can use to check your bill is not too high, such as Billmonitor and Mobilife. Enter your existing details and see if you could save money. In 2012, Billmonitor reckoned 26 million consumers in Britain were paying over the odds by as much as £164. The savings you could make will vary hugely, but it's certainly worth taking a look to see what you could save.
Apps like Viber and Whats App are also worth a mention as they allow you to text and call (Viber only) other users for free who have the apps on their smartphones. Whats App has ayearly subscription fee of around 65p, but the only other cost is the data on your smartphone plan if you're using 3G.
And when it comes to your broadband and home phone, it pays to find out if you are on the best deal. Dominic Baliszewski, telecoms expert at broadbandchoices.co.uk says: "Our own analysis has highlighted time and time again that a high proportion of customers do not actually switch broadband regularly enough to benefit from better pricing, which is crazy when you consider that switching can save you over £200 from your annual bill. Switching levels for broadband are woefully low when compared with energy or insurance services." Potential saving: £364
In the UK, households throw away an estimated 25 meals each month, worth a total of £60 a month or £720 each year. Avoid buying too much food, even when it seems like you are saving money. Try not to 'take advantage' of bulk buy deals you may not use, make good use of your freezer for fresh foods rather than putting them in the fridge and forgetting them, and change a few of your shopping and eating habits and you may save money.
Make a list and stick to it. Shopping online can help you avoid temptation, and if you do your shopping on Mysupermarket.co.uk, you could save even more. Enter your items as you would on a supermarket site, and it will find the cheapest supermarket for your needs saving on average £17 a shop, according to the site. On a weekly basis that makes £884.
Growing your own vegetables can also save money, although the set up costs can be relatively high if you are starting from scratch. But some foods are cheap and easy to grow, even if you have little space. If you are in the habit of buying bagged salad, you could easily save a significant sum by growing your own. Jane Perrone, gardening editor of the Guardian and author of The Allotment Keeper's Handbook, says: "The materials to grow your own probably cost something shy of £20 a year, for seeds and compost mainly - I usually use recycled containers." A standard bag of salad from a supermarket costs around £1, so if you would usually buy one bag a week, you would spend around £52 a year. Potential saving: £1,636
A Sky Sports bundle costs £43.50 a month, that's £522 a year. It's enough to take you somewhere sunny on holiday. It's enough to buy a whole new wardrobe full of clothes. Or, more importantly, several weekly food shops. Whatever else you could do with that money, it's certainly enough to make you think twice about whether or not you want to keep paying those subscription fees. Potential saving: £522
You might not be able to pay your credit card off straight away, but you can cut the cost. If your credit card has a rate of 18.9% and you have a balance of £5,000, then you could save £472 by doing a balance transfer to a credit card with a 0% introductory deal for the first six months. Potential saving: £472