I thought we’d been burgled – but British Gas had sent DEBT collectors to install prepayment meter without my permission | The SunFebruary 3, 2023
A BRITISH Gas customer thought she’d been burgled when she returned home – but debt collectors had been sent out to install a prepayment meter.
When Charlene Eastwood got home in October last year there was dirt all over her front room and clothes scattered on the floor.
Fearing the worst, she thought thieves had broken in and called her dad in tears.
The single mum though hadn’t been targeted by burglars but debt collectors used by British Gas had installed a prepayment meter for her electricity.
Charlene, 41, told The Times: “On my kitchen side was the warrant letter saying they had been in.
“I checked underneath the stairs where they had put this new meter in and wires were absolutely everywhere.”
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The self-employed cleaner lives with her two youngest kids, aged 16 and 20.
The elder boy suffers from epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD and Charlene was concerned what might have happened if he’d been at home when they arrived.
The mum had been with another supplier but they ceased trading and was transferred to British Gas.
Before the warrant was issued, Charlene had disputed a bill she would have been unable to afford.
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She has been told the total amount she owes has continued to rise but now has no control over the automatic repayments taken when she tops up her meter.
Charlene claimed that every time she put £10 on it took £6.50 off.
She said: “We feel like we are in the Stone Age, using candles to keep the lights off. I’m only doing washing once a week.”
Her story comes after it was revealed that British Gas routinely sent out debt collectors with warrants to break into customers’ home and install "pay-as-you-go” meters, including vulnerable clients.
Dozens of people have now come forward with their horror stories involving British Gas and Arvato, the debt agent the energy company uses to pursue unpaid bills.
How you can get help if you’re struggling to pay
There are some measures you can take if you're struggling to pay for your energy.
If you fall into debt, you can always approach your supplier to see if they can put you on a repayment plan before putting you on a prepayment meter.
This involves you paying off what you owe in instalments over a set period of time.
If your supplier offers you a repayment plan you don't think you can afford, speak to them again to see if you can negotiate a better deal.
Beyond this, a number of suppliers offer customers grants if they're struggling to pay energy bills.
A grant is a sum of money you don't have to pay back, so it's essentially free cash.
British Gas, Scottish Power, Ovo Energy, E.On, E.On Next, EDF, Octopus Energy and Shell Energy all offer the grants.
Plus, you might be able to get help from charities that can help you pay off your debt.
StepChange is one such charity, and you can call them for free advice on 0800 138 1111.
One woman, who has not been identified, said debt agents has come to her home on three occasions to try to install a prepayment meter, even though she was on the Priority Services Register.
Another told the news outlet that their parents, in their 90s, had been threatened with the force-fitting of a pre-payment meter after they complained about an increase in their direct debit.
Other homeowners reported Arvato agents had broken into the wrong properties.
Emma Docherty, 45, from Durham said three “burly men” and broken in to install a prepayment meter, even though her supplier was not British Gas.
Emma claimed she and her husband were living elsewhere in the property when she saw them leave a section they were renting out as flats.
The couple learnt that British Gas, who had legally obtained a warrant, had gone to the wrong property.
Know your rights
Energy watchdog Ofgem says suppliers must offer a range of ways to pay back a debt. One option could be through a prepayment meter.
A supplier can force-fit a prepayment meter by warrant “only after they have taken all reasonable steps to agree payment with you”. It should be a last resort to avoid disconnecting your supply.
Suppliers can’t force-fit a prepayment meter under warrant for people in very vulnerable situations if they don’t won’t one, or charge them for warrant costs on debts.
Nor can they use warrants on people who would find the experience very traumatic.
In another case, the mum of a teenage boy with a life-limiting conditions said she and her family had been left without heating after British Gas had refused to remove a meter because of the debts of a previous resident.
British Gas has since said it would stop switching people on to prepayment meters via their smart meters if there are problems with their bills.
A spokesperson for Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, said in a statement: “Protecting vulnerable customers is an absolute priority and we have clear processes and policies to ensure we manage customer debt carefully and safely.
“The allegations around our third-party contractor Arvato are unacceptable and we immediately suspended their warrant activity.
“Having recently reviewed our internal processes to support our prepayment customers as well as creating a new £10million fund to support those prepayment customers who need help the most, I am extremely disappointed that this has occurred.
“As a result, on Wednesday morning, we took a further decision to suspend all our prepayment warrant activity at least until the end of the winter.
“More broadly, there are clearly significant challenges around affordability and unfortunately, we don't see that changing anytime soon.
“We need to strike a balance between managing spiralling bad debt and being aware that there are those who refuse to pay and those who cannot pay.
“We think Government, industry and the regulator need to come together to agree a long-term plan to address this and ultimately create an energy market that is sustainable.
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Arvato Financial Solutions told the paper it “acts compliantly at all times in accordance with the regulatory requirements” and the findings did not represent the company’s views or its official guidance on how to interact with customers.
A spokesman said: “If there has been any verbal or any other type of misconduct by individual employees, we deeply regret it.”
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