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Experts alarmed as Aussies use crowdfunding app HelpPay to pay bills

Energy companies are partnering with a crowdfunding platform, but are they dodging financial hardship obligations?

helppay logo and australian power lines
Last updated: 17 April 2024


Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Need to know

  • Energy companies are promoting HelpPay as a way for struggling Aussies to pay bills 
  • HelpPay offers a crowdfunding service where people can get help from friends, family, or “generous strangers”
  • Experts are alarmed by the service and recommend consumers who are struggling with bills access financial hardship policies, incentives, and financial counsellors 

The rising cost of living continues to ramp up the pressure on Australian consumers, and many are finding themselves unable to make ends meet. 

Calls to the National Debt Helpline have jumped dramatically over the past 12 months, with energy bills proving a major stress point. 

But some consumers are looking for help in what might be the wrong places, especially when it comes to paying bills for essential services. Spurred on by energy providers, some cash-strapped Aussies are turning to crowdfunding to help pay their bills, using a service called HelpPay.

How does it work?

HelpPay users upload their bills to the platform and generate a link where other people can contribute payments. The service can be used for bill splitting (e.g. with housemates), paying for a family member's expenses, or getting "help from generous strangers" to crowdfund a bill users are struggling to pay. 

Testimonials by users of the app and online platform seem to show that the service is being used by people in financial hardship:

  • "I lost my job one month ago and now the electricity bill is due. I can't afford it."
  • "I'm drowning in debt, please help me pay the remainder of this bill. I just want to get rid of it."
  • "Due to illness, a sudden job loss & an unexpected move to a new home, my electricity bill is difficult to get on top of. I would appreciate even the smallest of contributions."

But in situations like these, energy companies have a legal obligation to help their customers navigate financial hardship. 

What about financial hardship obligations?

Financial hardship assistance can involve offering affordable payment plans, making sure customers are on the cheapest offer, or connecting customers with government programs like grants, concessions, and vouchers. These programs vary depending on which state the consumer lives in.

But despite these obligations, at least six Australian energy companies are promoting HelpPay to customers to crowdfund the payment of their energy bills.

We categorically reject the suggestion that HelpPay is being used by any company in any industry to skirt their financial hardship obligations

HelpPay spokesperson

It would seem the app is offering the energy retailers a way out of honouring their hardship duties, but HelpPay denies this.

 "We categorically reject the suggestion that HelpPay is being used by any company in any industry to skirt their financial hardship obligations," a HelpPay spokesperson says. 

HelpPay can be used with any BPAY-linked provider in Australia. The business says it has helped with over $3 million of bills across more than 330 Australian retailers including insurance, finance, government, water, and rentals.

A number of energy companies – Alinta, Tango, Red, Lumo, Diamond, and GloBird – are listed on HelpPay's website as partners. All except Diamond promote HelpPay on their websites as an option to pay bills.

Catherine Wolthuizen, Victoria's Energy and Water Ombudsman, says she is concerned that programs like HelpPay shift the burden of unaffordable energy bills onto the consumer.

person looking at energy bill

Customers who are having trouble paying their energy bills are entitled to assistance from their provider.

How companies are promoting HelpPay 

Alinta Energy features HelpPay the most prominently of all the energy companies we looked at. A full-page promotion in their website's "Payment assistance" section describes HelpPay as "a great solution for those in need of short-term financial help" that can support elderly or vulnerable family members. 

HelpPay also promotes an "Alinta Energy case study" on their own website that lets potential partners "find out how Alinta achieved a 100% payment rate on shared bills".

GloBird has a dedicated HelpPay page that promotes the service as 'a great way to help the people you love get back on their feet quickly

Lumo and Red, both owned by Snowy Hydro, promote HelpPay directly above sections on payment difficulty on their payment options pages. Both sites describe HelpPay as "making it easier to ask for help from friends and family". 

When asked by CHOICE if they were using HelpPay to avoid engaging in financial hardship plans, Lumo and Red both denied that this was the case. They said that customers who are struggling should contact them to discuss payment options.

GloBird has a dedicated HelpPay page that promotes the service as "a great way to help the people you love get back on their feet quickly". While their legal and compliance page – where the hardship policy is accessed – features the quip, "Our lawyers asked us to make this page".

Tango also has a dedicated HelpPay page, but it predominantly promotes HelpPay as a bill-splitting service for share-houses, friends and families, and the information is provided on a separate page to their hardship options.

Diamond does not promote HelpPay on their website. They told CHOICE that they joined a HelpPay pilot, however they have not had any customers request HelpPay as a payment option or ask to access HelpPay.

If you are struggling and can't pay your bill, ask your energy company for help

Kerry Connors, Energy Consumers Australia

Energy Consumers Australia's director of energy inclusion, Kerry Connors, says that seeing energy providers endorse the app as a way of crowdfunding bill payments for people who need help is disappointing.

"If you are struggling and can't pay your bill, ask your energy company for help – you should not need to rely on crowdfunding to pay your bill."

HelpPay says that when they are promoted on partner websites, they are always presented as one of many options, and there is no obligation to use HelpPay.

Alinta, Tango, and Globird did not respond to CHOICE's request for comment. 

Customers often not aware of their rights 

HelpPay says they do not ask their users if they are in financial hardship, as it would be impractical to provide state-specific hardship information for each of the companies they work with to every user. 

It's also worth pointing out that HelpPay is not a financial counselling service. They say they believe energy providers are doing "an excellent job" in upholding and applying hardship obligations.

Being on a hardship plan offers a range of protections

However, Peter Gartlan, co-CEO of Financial Counselling Australia, says consumers are often not aware of the financial hardship obligations of energy retailers when they reach out to financial counsellors. He says customers can access state-specific hardship plans, concessions, grants, and vouchers.

Further, if retailers do not offer satisfactory hardship assistance, consumers can make a complaint to the Energy and Water Ombudsman in their state, something Wolthuizen encourages people to do. 

Being on a hardship plan offers a range of protections. Importantly, it can protect consumers from being disconnected. 

The risk of disconnection

HelpPay responded to the claim that it puts consumers at risk of disconnection by pointing out that other options also put people at the same risk. These include credit cards and buy now pay later programs, which are also being used by consumers instead of accessing hardship plans. 

Eirene Tsolidis Noyce, a policy adviser at the Consumer Action Law Centre, says being disconnected can affect every aspect of a person's life. She says disconnection can put people's lives at risk and has deeper implications for people's mental health.

Wolthuizen says the Ombudsman is seeing more disconnections and threats of disconnection as a part of energy providers' debt recovery practices. 

Disconnection "should only ever be a last resort", she says, and consumers should be provided with every protection and support before taking "what is actually quite an extreme step".

donate button on keyboard

Crowdfunding is not a long-term solution for people struggling to pay their bills.

Does HelpPay help?

Gartlan says HelpPay may help people in the short term, but it is unlikely to fix underlying debt issues. "Services like HelpPay are not capacity building, they provide a band-aid solution at best," he says.

He says the best thing for customers to do is "seek a hardship plan and contact a financial counsellor who can get them back on track financially".

There are also other solutions that can help people who are struggling to pay their energy bills, like better offers, energy efficiency upgrades, and information about how to reduce costs.

HelpPay is also marketed as a solution to ensure that money paid towards a bill only goes to that bill and not to an individual's personal account. In their "Ultimate Guide to Asking for Help" they say their platform can prevent money being spent "on a night out, or a haircut".  

Services like HelpPay are not capacity building, they provide a band-aid solution at best

Peter Gartlan, Financial Counselling Australia

They say it reassures users that the money goes on bills, without having to "actually say the words out loud" or "offend someone".

Noyce says this increases "the stigmatisation of what it looks like to be in hardship" which can be harmful, especially as hardship becomes more common in a cost-of-living crisis. 

Retailers providing assistance for people in financial hardship should not be framed as a choice, she says, adding that hardship is becoming increasingly common with everyone facing cost-of-living issues.

If you need help managing bills, call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 for free, confidential, and independent information and advice.
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