‘DO NOT refuse to pay your energy bill in October,’ the post begins, grabbing the attention of anyone who might be considering doing just that. “Below is how you can make a stand and hurt your energy supplier without getting into debt/damaging your credit rating.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to take a stand against sky-high energy bills, and if we can do so at no personal cost, all the better. Attached to the text is the headline “Martin Lewis issues warning after people refuse to pay their bills” and a picture of the personal finance guru wearing a grave expression. We can trust Martin Lewis, can’t we?

But the advice provided is not from Martin Lewis. Worse still, it is bad advice, based on misinformation, but that hasn’t stopped it from being shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook alone, then seeping into other social media platforms.

While MoneySavingExpert was quick to publish a warning on its website early in August that “Martin Lewis and MSE have NOTHING to do with viral social media posts urging people to bombard energy firms with complaints”, its post did not actually debunk any of the claims made.

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Lewis tried asking people to delete his picture from their posts, but it was already too late; the advice was spreading like wildfire. By the time it reached TikTok – where repeating it could be monetised by content creators eager to build a following – there was no chance of containing it.

When I first saw friends sharing the post, I was sceptical. It asserts that as long as you have a complaint active – either with your supplier or with the energy ombudsman – “your energy supplier can’t take any debt collection work on your account” or pass your details to credit reference agencies, and “that bill gets put on hold whilst they try to resolve your complaint”.

It further claims, trickily, that “for every complaint the Ombudsman receives, they charge your energy supplier £500 for every claim they have to investigate.”

The idea is that if enough customers cancel their Direct Debits and pay only for what they use, then make complaints and escalate them for as long as possible, the energy companies will be crippled with charges.

Not only that, but supposedly “this will also put them in breach of their licensing conditions and put their ability to trade at risk.”

Nowhere is it specified what kind of complaints people should make – the implication seeming to be that they can simply complain their bills are too high. Crippling energy suppliers is presented as a worthwhile goal, and the clear implication is that customers have nothing to lose by trying.

Let’s look at the claims in turn, and then find out where they came from. Step one of the advice is “Cancel your Direct Debit and pay for what you use each month.” No mention of the fact that Direct Debit is the cheapest way to pay for energy, usually with a discount of about 7%.

Step two is to open a complaint and reject any solutions the energy supplier may offer. The suggestion is that it “might offer you a small reduction”. Readers are told: “DON’T accept it”.

I asked Advice Direct Scotland if an open complaint puts the bill “on hold”. They said: “Having a complaint open doesn’t offer any further protection against being pursued for outstanding amounts, although suppliers should consider customers’ ability to pay, and work with them to come to an affordable payment plan.”

I asked the Energy Ombusdman too, and it said: “It’s not true that debt collection activity will necessarily cease when a consumer brings a complaint to us”.

Well OK, you might say, but if there’s a chance to hammer the energy suppliers maybe it’s still worth escalating those complaints, as described in step three – and it’s certainly true that the ombudsman is funded by fees paid by suppliers.

However, “there isn’t a £500 admin fee for looking at a complaint”, consumer rights expert Martyn James has told Metro, explaining that case costs vary but also that objections to high bills don’t fall under the ombudsman’s remit.

The viral post relies on widespread confusion about the difference between energy suppliers and producers, suggesting that we, the customers, would benefit from more suppliers going bust. Even if the “£500 per complaint” claim were true, what would mass complaints get us? Higher standing charges for years to come, most likely.

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So following the advice in the post will not benefit you – indeed, it could have pretty dire consequences if you simply ignore debts – and it is also unlikely to change the energy supply sector for the better.

Who, then, would spread such harmful misinformation? Russian bots? Anarchists? Terrorists? Perhaps. But on the face of it, the truth is far less exciting.

Most of the original post appears to have been drawn from a Facebook comment on an online story (the one with the Martin Lewis headline) by a woman named Helena who lives in Bradford.

She runs an online natural health store and had lots to say about vaccines and masks at the height of the pandemic. The post gained traction in Scotland after being shared by a scrap metal dealer named Ryan from Inverclyde.

It seems a lie can get halfway around the UK while the truth is putting its thermals on. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.