Power customers asked to tell tales

Data ways: New means of keeping tabs on criminals and absconders
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The Independent Online
Britain's biggest regional electricity company is asking customers to give information on neighbours who have not paid their bills.

Eastern Electricity, which has three million customers, is sending out letters to householders living next to customers who have moved away, asking for help "in providing any information you may have as to their current whereabouts".

The letter asks whether they know their former neighbour's new address, telephone number and name of their employer. It also asks for details of the landlord who owns the property or the estate agent who sold it.

Eastern's tactics have provoked anger among consumer groups and raised questions over whether the company is in breach of data protection legislation. Malcolm Roberts, chairman of the Eastern Region Electricity Consumers Committee, said: "I can't think of another organisation that would indulge in this sort of behaviour. It is appalling."

The Office of the Data Protection Registrar said that Eastern may have breached the 1989 Electricity Act which prohibits electricity suppliers from disclosing customer information without customers' consent, except in some restricted cases.

An Eastern spokesman denied that it was in breach of any laws and said that its methods of tracing customers were in accordance with codes of practice laid down by three credit agencies. Eastern had done it for decades, he said, and sent out several thousand such letters a year. "We regard it as being in the interests of all our customers that debts are paid."

British Gas, British Telecom and Mercury all said they would not approach neighbours in order to pursue customer accounts.

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