Tell us your tales of utility company woe and how you overcame them.
asks James, and so I will.
Years ago I moved to Liverpool to take up my first graduate job, and – like a lot of people in their early twenties who have just left university – I was spectacularly naive about renting a flat (student flats are a joint effort and renting them seems to be a lot different from when you’re on your own). My first mistake on viewing a shitty, 1960s icebox on the top floor of a dreary brick building with a flat roof was not laughing and walking away. My second mistake was not recognising an Economy 7 heating system and knowing they are worse than useless. My third mistake was seeing there was no sofa and assuming I had to buy one myself, instead of telling the agent the landlord needed to buy one. You get the idea.
Anyway, in my hurry and naivety I signed for the flat and collected the keys, and arrived for my first night quite late on a Sunday evening. I walked in and found there was no electricity. Fumbling around in the corridor I discovered the meter which confused me somewhat. It didn’t look like the meters I was used to: this one had a strange slot by the LCD display, and a button beside the slot. I pressed the button and the lights came on, but the display then showed a 24 hour countdown. The next day I called the electricity company and they said it was a pre-paid meter and I would need to “build up a credit rating over the next 12 months”. I said this was ridiculous, I had a good salary and mobile phone, credit card, etc. but I got the usual “tough shit” from what passes as customer service in the UK. Anyway, I found I had to buy pre-paid tickets from a newsagent.
Only when I went to buy them I found I first needed a customer card, presumably so the power company could assign the purchases to a particular account. Without one I wasn’t supposed to be able to buy the tickets, but the newsagent sold some to me anyway and advised I get a card ASAP. I also found out that buying electricity using pre-paid tickets was far more expensive than on a normal meter. It is ironic, but being poor is very expensive, and one of the reasons why climbing out of poverty is so damned difficult. There are probably reasons related to administration costs why pre-paid electricity is more expensive than metered, but I did feel like the energy companies were fucking over the poor on this score. Also, the button I pressed to get 24 hours of electricity was an emergency measure. They billed the consumption at twice the normal pre-paid rate. You can imagine how the unorganised poor are clobbered by this.
Somehow I got the prepaid card quite quickly, but by then I had taken advantage of the deregulation of utilities to switch providers. Within a few days a different company had done what the first one refused to and sent a man out with a normal meter who installed it, taking the pre-paid one away. So the immediate problem was solved.
The trouble was, I never got a bill. I waited a few weeks and then called them, and they said they’d sent a bill out. I asked them to send another and they did, but I never got it. What I think was happening was every time I called up, the zombie on the end of the phone would immediately ask “what is your postcode” followed by “what is the number of the address”. Being a bit dense myself, I would give them the flat number, not the street number common to the whole block of flats. The call-centre zombie didn’t have permission to say “what is your address” and so the same error was made each time I called. Eventually I figured this out and went to the house just up the street where I thought the bills would have been sent, but nobody was in. So I called them up again and put them straight. Only no bill arrived.
I was in that place about six months, and I eventually walked away leaving several months’ rent unpaid because the roof was leaking, the washing machine didn’t work, and the agency and landlord had “all agreed” I needed to fix everything in my own time and at my own expense. The younger of my two brothers, who was himself a landlord at the time, gave me some good advice: just stop paying the rent. When several months had passed he gave me some more: why don’t you just fuck off? So I did, moving back to Manchester, and mailed the agents the keys and never heard from them again.
But despite my best efforts I still never received an electricity bill. I’d called them enough times and I have no idea why one never came, so I just forgot about it. Then two or three years later, late one evening somewhere around 9pm, a man called my mobile with a practiced, aggressive opening designed to throw me off balance. Before I could say more than hello he said:
“You have an outstanding balance on your electricity bill of two hundred and seventy pounds, could you please tell me when you intend to pay it?”
I’m sharp when I need to be, and knew immediately what he was talking about. “No,” I said. “That’s not right. I pay my bill on a monthly direct debit.”
He had a weak hand, but he tried to play it best he could. “This is for a property in Liverpool,” he said then read out the address.
“Nope,” I said. “I don’t live in Liverpool, I live in Manchester.” I wasn’t going to do his job for him.
“Could you confirm your name and address?” he asked.
“No,” I said firmly. “I have no idea who you are.”
“Okay, but can you confirm if you lived in Liverpool?” he said. He was clutching at straws.
“Nope,” I said brightly, lying through my teeth. “Never lived there. I live in Manchester, sorry. Bye!”
And that was that, I never heard from them again. My conscience was completely clear: I’d given them every opportunity to send me a bill in a timely manner, and they’d screwed it up. I wasn’t going to get stuck for a bill – half of which probably wasn’t mine – because of their incompetence. And I knew that if they knew my current address they’d have sent me a letter, and the guy calling me represented their last throw of the dice. If I refused to cooperate there wasn’t much they could do, or if there was, then they were going to have to do it without my help.
Part of my intransigence came from the experience I had buying the sofa. I bought it on credit and was expected to make a monthly payment of £50 by direct debit, only the money never left my account. Six months passed and suddenly I got a threatening letter through my letterbox about non-payment of monies owed and court summons, etc. I wrote them back explaining they’d fucked up and the money had never been taken from my account by the loan company, and without a sniff of apology or acknowledgment they just helped themselves to £300 which I was fortunate to have (I’d been setting the money aside).
So when the electricity company made a similar blunder, I thought screw you, I’ve done everything properly on my side, if you send me a bill I’ll pay it but don’t expect me to make your job easier by answering questions when somebody calls me out of the blue. Shortly afterwards I moved to Kuwait, and whatever minimal chances they had of catching up with me I left at immigration.