Computer upsets 15,000 gas customers

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

A BRITISH GAS computer fired off 15,000 warning letters to customers in error last week before a spate of complaints alerted management.

Letters of apology are being sent to 15,000 customers in south London, Kent, East and West Sussex, and much of Surrey, at a cost of several thousand pounds.

The problem came to light when hundreds of aggrieved customers telephoned to complain that they had received a letter expressing concern 'that your payments are not up to date' and asking for payment within 14 days.

The letter purported to come from Roy Griffith, accounts manager, but it was British Gas's south-eastern regional computer in Mitcham, Surrey, which issued the letters last week.

Like other utilities with huge numbers of customers, the company has automated the sending of warning letters. At no stage before posting is any human check made on whether the machine is mistaken.

Yesterday, Andrew Davis, a British Gas spokesman, said that faulty programming was to blame. The computer had been scanning the accounts of customers paying by direct debit and concluded that the 15,000 it had looked at on three days last week had missed a payment. 'We've stopped any further letters being sent out and we're working on the software,' he said. 'There's an inquiry going on into what went wrong with the programming.'