Occasionally, I like to entertain readers with the plot of a four-act ghost story. The villain is always the same: the energy sector. There’s nothing more enjoyably chilling on a cold, dark night than tales of phantoms and gas-lighting – provided it’s someone else being haunted.
FG of Glyn Ceiriog, Denbighshire tries to log on to her British Gas account. “Welcome back, Jamie,” reads the homepage, helpfully displaying a stranger’s address and account number. Spooked, she hurries to log out. Up pops another page saluting “Paula” with the unknown Paula’s details on show. Then, when she frantically tries again to exit, she’s introduced to “Philip”. She closes the app, then “Ian” and his personal data pop up. “I could have used the information illicitly,” she says. “I wonder how many others this has happened to, and who has accessed my personal details.”
British Gas has form on blind dates such as these. Last year, a customer logged on to find someone else’s details under her name, then her address was transposed on to someone else’s account. British Gas blamed an “isolated system fault”. FG’s surreal saga is, it insists, completely unrelated. It was an “error” during “planned maintenance” lasting for 16 minutes and exposed the data of 32 customers. It says all have been contacted and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has been informed.
It reckons no harm was done because the company takes data protection “extremely seriously”. “We can confirm no passwords or banking information were disclosed, and customers do not need to take any further action,” it says. “We are sorry that this incident happened.”
Individuals concerned about how personal data has been handled, can contact the ICO, but only if the company has failed to resolve the matter.
LG is going blamelessly about his life in London, but all is not as it seems. Energy bills have been arriving from Scottish Power for two years addressed to the “Owner Owner Occupier” [sic]. LG has never been a customer of Scottish Power, but the company does not let a technicality such as that get in its way. In vain does he send the company bills from his longstanding supplier.
The mystery account has, he is told, been closed, but weeks later it springs back to life and unleashes more bills for ever-increasing sums. Then a knock at the door reveals a bailiff threatening to cut off his energy supply.
Scottish Power does not provide a comment, but does cancel the account after which LG’s meter mysteriously stops working. He is unable to take a final reading when he moves and has therefore received an inflated final bill based on estimates from his current supplier.
E.ON is adamant a vulnerable social housing tenant owes it £65.28 on a final bill and has unleashed a debt collection agent. It has not actually issued the final bill, and the tenant was not actually living at the address when the charges were incurred. None of this is of any interest to the debt collection firm or E.ON.
His social worker eventually elicits the period being charged for, and sends proof her client’s tenancy ended two months before it began. She is promised a final bill showing supply dates and consumption. Instead, another letter demands immediate payment for unspecified usage over unspecified dates. “Each time I ring the agency, new demands for information are made and nothing happens,” she says. “My client, who has very limited funds, is becoming increasingly stressed.”
I fancy myself adept at exorcisms, but E.ON proves as hard to nail down as ectoplasm. It promises it will call off debt collectors and cancel charges, but doesn’t confirm this for another six weeks. It never does explain why he was charged after moving out, and why his complaints were ignored.
JB of Bothwell, South Lanarkshire, has a hungry prepayment meter that she has topped up ever since she moved into her home two years ago. When she applies for her energy support vouchers, Scottish Power insists that she has a smart meter and owes it £418. Eight calls and online chats fail to move the monolith. Neither do photos showing the meter and top-up key.
When I intervene, Scottish Power blames butter fingers on the national database that caused the wrong address to be selected from a drop-down menu. A lucky stranger with a smart meter has therefore received JB’s discounts. Scottish Power promises to cancel the bill and issue a goodwill payment. Instead, JB receives a bill for £492.
Back to Scottish Power, which explains that, due to a quaint system quirk, when it corrected her address, her two years of payments were processed at once and a bill was automatically dispatched. Her account is now corrected and in credit.
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