%VIRTUAL-SkimlinksPromo%Energy companies are charging their most loyal customers up to £90 more than those who have switched to them, according to new figures.
The biggest companies add a surcharge to the tariffs of customers that they inherited from their time as monopoly suppliers, meaning that these households pay more for their energy than they need to, the think-tank IPPR claimed.
The figures appear to back claims of "predatory pricing" whereby companies lure new customers with low prices funded by profits made from long-standing accounts.
The IPPR's analysis found electricity bills in 2013 for customers who had not switched supplier since the market was opened to competition were on average £27 higher than for customers who had switched.
The disparity in prices was greatest for those who pay their bills by standard credit, with a difference of £29 between those who had and had not switched.
Gas bills in 2013 for those who had not switched supplier since the market was opened to competition were on average £76 higher than for customers who had switched.
The disparity in prices was greatest for those who pay their bills by direct debit, with a difference of £89 between those who had and had not switched.
The IPPR said the different amounts paid for gas by those who had and had not switched had trebled since 2010, rising on average from £26 to £76.
IPPR senior research fellow Reg Platt said: "Competition is failing in the energy markets.
"Our new analysis shows how the biggest energy companies add a surcharge to the tariffs of customers that they inherited from their time as monopoly suppliers.
"This means that these customers pay more for their energy than they need to. It also means smaller suppliers are at an unfair disadvantage because they have not inherited any customers and must compete against the low prices that the big companies offer to people who have switched.
"Ofgem has shown itself to be incapable of taking the action that is necessary to get the energy market working in the interests of consumers. In the four years since Ofgem launched a major review into whether competition is effective in energy, the surcharge on gas prices has increased substantially.
"The outcome of the new competition review due to be published this week cannot be simply more of the same.
"It's time that the market was radically reformed so that small energy service companies, local authorities, communities and individuals can all become active players in the energy market."
10 consumer rights you should know
Loyal energy users 'pay £90 more'
The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.
This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.
Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".
Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.
If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.
If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.
After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.
The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).
Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.
Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.
Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.
You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.
The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.
If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.
The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.
Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.
They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.
What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.
You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.
Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.
They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.
In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.
Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.
You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.
You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.
We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.
In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.
Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.