Households across Germany are receiving letters from their electricity and gas suppliers this year, mostly with sharp price increases. But not every tariff change is legal, because providers have to adhere to strict rules. How to check a letter.

There have been more than 2,000 price increases since last September from electricity providers alone, and a further 119 have already been announced for October. A similar number of gas prices were increased in the same period, and there are even 603 more changes to come in the coming month. The price increases are enormous: gas customers pay an average of 232 percent more today than they did a year ago, electricity customers around 44 percent more.

But even electricity and gas providers are not allowed to increase their tariffs indiscriminately. There are rules for price increases that providers often ignore in the crisis. These errors will invalidate your price increase:

In the universal service, providers are obliged to make any price changes public and to inform customers at least six weeks in advance by letter. Incidentally, this is why providers of basic services can only collect the gas surcharge from November. In many cases, the time from the adoption of the new tax to its entry into force on October 1st was not sufficient to comply with this rule.

In special care, the period is one month. You must also contact suppliers here by letter. Other ways – for example an e-mail – are only permitted if you have explicitly agreed to this beforehand. This is usually the case with tariffs concluded online. However, what is by no means sufficient is if the provider only publishes new prices in its customer portal. You must be informed personally.

Even if it seems obvious why electricity and gas prices are currently rising, providers are not allowed to increase tariffs as they please. You must clearly explain in the notification why the prices are increasing. Default suppliers have to explain why costs have increased over which they have no influence – such as statutory levies or network charges. Special suppliers must agree a price change right in their general terms and conditions (GTC). In the past, however, courts have often overturned such clauses because they did not meet legal standards. Whether this is the case for you would have to be clarified by a specialist, such as the consumer advice center.

There are also rules for the cover letter with which your provider informs you of a price increase. First of all, it has to be simple and easy to understand. You must then be informed of your special right of termination in the event of a price increase. For basic suppliers, the Federal Court of Justice has stipulated that they must compare all old and new components of the tariff in a table so that you can see immediately which price components have increased. There are similar judgments for providers of special care, but many procedures are still ongoing here, so that there is no generally applicable rule yet.

The two words for the cover letter naturally leave room for interpretation. However, courts have already specified both in recent years. Basically, the point is that providers are not allowed to disguise price increases. This could happen in the following ways:

– The cover letter looks like an advertisement. A price increase must be clearly communicated in a letter. If this is done instead on a colorful flyer, which customers easily mistake for advertising and throw away unseen, the price increase is ineffective.

– The price increase is hidden in a long text. Tariff changes must be clearly visible on the first page of a cover letter. If your provider sends you a five-page letter in which inconspicuously higher prices are announced in a paragraph on the penultimate page, this is invalid.

– The price increase will only be communicated on the invoice. Your annual statement already contains a lot of numbers and data. For this reason, courts have ruled that customers should not be expected to recognize price increases here.

– Energy price falls, basic price rises: Another popular trick is to slightly reduce the energy price per kilowatt hour and to announce this prominently on the first page of the cover letter, but to outsource the basic price increase, which has a greater effect, to a subordinate clause.

– For emails: Unknown senders or irrelevant subject lines are also prohibited. Firstly, an email must clearly state that it comes from your provider and, secondly, it must be made clear in the subject line that a price increase is involved.

If your provider increases your price in several steps, he must also communicate this in several letters. A single message is not enough.

If you suspect that your price increase is ineffective, you can have it checked by experts from the local consumer advice center, for example. If the price increase is ineffective, you should object to the letter in writing and inform your regional consumer advice center and the Federal Network Agency. The latter two institutions can apply more pressure against illegal price increases and, for example, warn or sue companies. However, both only intervene if complaints about a specific provider accumulate. That’s why every report is important.

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