ENERGY suppliers are facing an unprecedented level of complaints from Scottish consumers over "misleading" sales methods.
According to Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), consumers have become increasingly frustrated with techniques used to sell gas and electricity.
Many say bills increased after they were persuaded to switch suppliers on the promise of savings and complained of emotional stress.
A report released today by Citizens Advice Scotland records a massive rise in complaints about methods and techniques used by energy firms trying to encourage consumers to switch providers.
A total of 756 such cases were brought to Citzens Advice Bureau (CAB) in 2012-13, seven times more than the total for 2011-12. "Such poor sales and after-care practices appear to be further eroding trust in a market which consumers already treat with some suspicion," says the report.
The total number of energy issues brought to CAB last year increased by 4%, while a new consumer service helpline recorded 2614 cases.
"People being mis-sold energy plans is a major concern, and it shows just how many people remain affected by fuel poverty,'' Sarah Beattie-Smith, policy officer with CAS, told the Sunday Herald.
"Not only does such a massive increase in complaints damage consumer confidence, it also undermines the advice given by governments which have been encouraging people to switch their provider to make sure they have the cheapest possible tariff.
"Nobody should be faced with the stark choice of heating or eating, but the cases in our report show that Scottish households face that choice day in and day out."
She added: "It is a perfect storm right now. A combination of stagnant wages, rising inflation and high fuel costs has simply made energy unaffordable for some people.
"There is a cycle of people who fall into debt and become unable to get out again.
"Some energy companies, to their credit, recognise some people just cannot pay to heat their homes. In some cases, the supplier will provide a credit in the winter months that the customer will then pay back.
"However, many often struggle to do so as automatic repayment measures can be as high as 70%.
"This means that, for those with pre-pay meters, every £10 top-up leaves them with just £3 worth of credit.''
Misleading energy plans have been a contentious issue.
In April, SSE was fined a record £10.5 million by Ofgem for mis-selling fuel plans to customers. On Thursday, the company announced yearly profits of £1.5 billion, despite losing 250,000 customers.
Three months ago, Scottish Power was forced to pay its customers £8.5m in compensation after Ofgem found the firm's sales agents had given inaccurate comparisons to consumers.
Elizabeth Gore, deputy director of the fuel poverty charity Energy Action Scotland, says the only way to restore public trust in the energy industry is for firms to take greater responsibility when dealing with complaints.
She said: "The fact that the number of people complaining about their energy supplier is rising is very worrying and a sign of the lack of trust in the energy industry as a whole that has built up.
"Suppliers must take the complaints against them seriously and work with the regulator and consumer bodies to help turn the tide in how energy companies do business and how they deal with their customers."
In December, it was announced that the number of households in Scotland struggling with fuel poverty had fallen by 74,000.
But Gore insists many Scottish families face a perpetual battle to cover energy costs. She said: "Despite recent official figures reporting a fall in the rate of fuel poverty in Scotland, the evidence on the ground strongly suggests that more households are struggling with their energy bills, or fear further price increases.
"It is widely recognised that living in a cold home or having to make difficult choices about buying basic commodities such as food, heat or warm clothes is detrimental to people's wellbeing.
"The high level of attention on the cost of energy bills at present must surely underline the urgent need to tackle the issue on three main fronts, that is, to minimise energy prices, to maximise household incomes and to ensure homes are energy-efficient."
TODAY'S report from CAS notes that between October 2010 and November 2013, the Big Six suppliers increased their prices by a total of 37%.
In the same period, inflation has risen by 10.2%, while average earnings in the UK have risen by just 4.4%.
It means energy prices from the main six providers have risen at eight times the rate of earnings and three times the rate of inflation.
Among the other common areas of complaint raised in today's CAS report is a lack of information available to consumers who are trying to find the cheapest energy tariff they can.
Many also raised the issue of being unable to contact providers in order to clarify errors or to discuss a viable repayment plan. Almost four-fifths of those contacting CAB about fuel debt said they struggle to make payments on their energy plan.
Although the report suggests some companies have improved their debt-recovery processes, some consumers have complained about being unduly harassed by creditors.
In response to the report, Citizens Advice Scotland is launching a new information campaign tomorrow.
The Big Energy Saving Week aims to give practical advice to those who are searching for ways to cut their fuel bills. Supported by the UK Government and the Big Six fuel companies, the campaign will be delivered by the CAB service until next Friday.
Anyone affected by fuel poverty and rising energy prices can get advice and support at their local Citizens Advice Bureau by calling 0808 808 2282, or by visiting www.bigenergysavingweek.org.uk