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ESB Forced to Defend Use of Debt Collection Agency

The Electricity Supply Board (ESB), an Irish electricity company, has been forced to defend its decision to use a UK debt collection agency. This move came about after the ESB decided it was time to use a debt recovery agency to recover small debts that were outstanding for customers who had left ESB and moved to alternate providers of electricity and one of these ex-customers, who had switched to Bord Gáis advised that he was being pursued by a debt collection agency for an outstanding amount of €73 which remains owing to the ESB.

Liam Carey, Hanover Quay, Dublin, last March availed of the Bord Gáis “Big Switch” offer which gives discounts of 10 to 14 per cent on ESB rates to householders who move to Bord Gáis.

At the end of June he received a final bill of €97.93 from the ESB. He queried the bill because it was an estimated reading, but later in July agreed to pay the sum.

Having lost his job, Mr Carey came to an arrangement with the ESB to pay the sum in increments of €5 per week. He admits to missing one or two payments later in the month, but said he had resumed payments.

Last Monday he received a text message which asked him to call the debt recovery company and quote a reference number sent in the text. Mr Carey said there was no other information and when he rang the number the person who answered would not say who they were unless he quoted the reference number and gave his name.

Concerned that the text might be a scam, Mr Carey rang the Data Protection Commissioner who said he could give his name and the reference number, but should give no other information such as his address.

He rang the number again and after giving his name was told who the recovery agency were and that they were working on behalf of the ESB. Mr Carey was told he has until Friday to pay the bill in full or legal proceedings would be initiated.

“I was surprised, so I rang the ESB and they confirmed they were using this firm. Admittedly I had missed a week or two, and I had had an agreement with the ESB, but I was paying regularly,” Mr Carey said.

He said he was surprised to learn that the ESB would use a UK debt collector to pursue such a small debt. He would not be in a position to pay the €73 by this Friday and would have to face whatever legal consequences arose he said.

The ESB said it could not comment on individual cases.

“When a customer closes an account with ESB, reminder letters and telephone calls are made reminding the customer of the amount still owing. If this amount remains unpaid, we use the services of a collection agency to collect this debt on our behalf,” he said.

Dermott Jewell, chief executive of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland said he understood the ESB were entitled to collect the debt, but there was a need for some customer care.

“This method of sending a fairly anonymous text message seems rather strange and for such a small debt putting it in the hands of a UK debt collection agency is a rather heavy-handed approach.”

A spokesman for Mabs, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, said he had not heard of the UK firm in question, but was aware of other debt collection agencies making similar calls.