Monday, August 13, 2007

It's time to rage against the machine

DESPITE WHAT might seem like an uncaring public persona, I am actually a very nice person. So it was that a couple of years ago I decided to buy my wife a new mobile phone.

I wrote to her network supplier – O2 – and gave them six months’ notice on the contract. Then, six months later, I bought her a new phone: one of those girly, pink things, and signed up with a new company.

Stupidly I forgot to cancel my direct debit with O2 for another three months, so was immediately £60 down. But what the hell, it was my mistake, so I wrote it off. It was, after all, just two bottles of decent wine. I could cope with the loss.

All was quiet for some time. My wife was happy with her phone; I was happy that she was happy. You know how these things go. I then got a letter from O2, telling me that I was in arrears and owed them the princely sum of £41.27. So I wrote back and explained the situation, pointing out that I’d given notice on the contract nine months ago and, even if there was a procedural cock-up, I’d already paid them £60 over the odds, so let’s just call it quits and everyone’s happy. It all went quiet again.

I may have then received another O2 letter; I can’t really remember and I’ve long since adopted the policy of only opening the letters I recognise, so avoiding unpleasant surprises. The next thing was the first letter from the debt collecting company. Tiresome, but copeable-with. Or so I thought.

So I phoned them up, explained the situation, pointed out that O2 had made a mistake and said that I wouldn’t be paying them the £41.27. They didn’t seem very happy about this, and said that a debt was a debt and they’d be pursuing it until O2 called them off.

Back to O2. Got through – eventually - to the accounts department, explained situation, banged head on brick wall. There, on their computer screen, was my name. And there, alongside it, was the figure of £41.27. I therefore owed them £41.27, and no amount of explaining would change that.

OK, I thought, I’ll ignore them and they’ll go away. The reality of the situation is that they probably owe me £60, so no way am I paying them their alleged £41.27. Battle lines had been drawn.

And then the letters from the debt-collecting agency began arriving. Now these were clearly computer-generated, and sent out automatically to a set pattern, but tried hard to convey a level of personal involvement. Some were harsh, some tried to reason with me. There were pink ones, red ones, and certain words began to appear in capital letters: CREDIT RATING, BLACKLIST, BANCRUPTCY … that sort of thing.

They continued to arrive at the rate of around one a week, occasionally suddenly accelerating into a mini-climax of threats. I imagined them being delivered, Harry Potter style, by a fleet of vultures. I had THREE days left to pay, then ONE, and then SEVEN again. And then the serious threats began.

If I didn’t pay this mythical £41.27 by Tuesday, a bailiff would be sent round to enter my home and take away goods and chattels to the value of the debt. This may or may not include electrical equipment such as televisions and computers, or even vehicles if necessary. At this point I started to get rather cross. I don’t like being threatened unfairly. I also don’t like the idea of people more vulnerable than myself being intimidated by this blatantly illegal nonsense. (For the record, a bailiff cannot enter your home without permission. And you should obviously never give that.)

I tried once more to phone them, but got a woman in Hull who appeared to be auditioning for lead Dalek in the next series of Doctor Who. It’s impossible to convince a woman who spends each and every day dealing with defaulting dole scum that she’s got a bona fide member of the middle classes on the phone. Her mind had melded with the computer in front of her. It could not tell a lie.

So the letters continued. Some contained threats - “Did I know that my children could be taken away by Social Services if I didn’t cough up this £41.27?” - and some contained blatant lies: “Our agent called today but was unable to contact you …” No he didn’t. I was here all day, drinking wine and watching cricket. You’re just making it up now.

Even the computer-generated threats started to descend into bizarre abuse: “May there be a POX upon your FAMILY should you fail to settle this account.” and “Thine EYES will be plucked out by CROWS and your innards spilled into the gutter for VERMIN to feast upon.”

They’re now threatening me with county court. Bring it on, I say. I’ve got the paperwork – they’ve just got some sinister software. Only even then they’re still lying. If I don’t SETTLE up by Wednesday, I will have a county court judgment AGAINST me and my MORTGAGE may be called in for IMMEDIATE repayment. Well, no, actually … despite your protestations, I can’t be hauled up and convicted without being given the chance to defend myself – however much that might displease the computer.

And why am I telling you all this? It occurs to me that I can’t possibly be the only person in the country who’s being persecuted by a grey plastic box of misanthropy and microchips. The easy way out of this nonsense would be to just send them the £41.27 they want and they’ll go away (actually, I suspect that the minute I admit the debt, they’ll hammer me with another £1,000 in costs and charges), but why should I?

The computer may be king, but only if we allow it to be. It’s time for every good man and true to stand up and rage against the machine. Because if we don’t, the damn things will begin to believe that they’re infallible after all.


Blogger Angry Steve said...

The reason these people think they can get away with this sort of behaviour, is that we, the honest people, haven't been shooting the bastards to keep them in line.

Good luck.

And remember - keep the peace through superior firepower.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous assegai mike said...

I had almost exactly the same experience as you - except with a bunch of nincompoops called Pipex (AVOID!). Like you they owed me money (helping themself from my bank account even though I had cancelled my account with them (which they acknowledged in writing)), yet continued to demand money from me with menaces (debt collectors' letters etc.). Unlike you, every time I phoned, they apologised and admitted their mistake but the letters and demands continued because clearly they could not stop their computer. I've long since moved offices. Fuck knows what's happened since. Pipex. Spelled T.W.A.T.S.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Doc said...

Demand back your 60 pounds. If they don't start writing threatening letters, threaten them with court action. Bet you they will cough up, but don’t expect them to pay you £18.73 and write off your ‘debt’. You’ll get the £60 then you can pay them off.
I was with npower dual fuel. Don’t use any gas in summer as it only runs the central heating, so I pay huge excesses that I don’t need in the summer. So when I got into arrears on the electricity I thought ‘hey they can just take the excess from my gas account’. HELL NO. Started to get threatening letters even though the arrears for the lecky was far less than the excesses they had off me for the gas.
Needless to say I’ve changed supplier.

1:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some further reading of brainless adherence to what the computer says can be found at if you can get that URL past your corporate firewalls.

2:28 AM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Arguing 101: Annoying beaurocracy for fun and profit.

My girlfriend had a similar problem with O2 - though in her case they took the same 140-odd quid from her account twice, and found the same mindless beaurocracy. We got 8 months free, a dedicated peon for her to talk to when angry or bored, and cheaper international calls after about 3 hours of my time.

The trick is to be friendly to the poor sod who can't give you what you want - i.e a rational human. Then obstreporous but dignified if they won't give you their supervisor. After 2-3 layers of this you get through to humans who have learned to tie their shoelaces and get the goods.

The trick with these guys is to explain fairly and without over exaggeration how you've been damaged by them and also how they've inconvenienced you in ways money can't buy (in this O2 case is was that they'd stolen money from her mother's credit card which had lead to a ficticious but massive arguement). You then let them fester, apologising - though obviously not offering anything. Then you suggest that there is a route through this minefield, and that by making a "good-will gesture"/"ex-gratia payment" or other court-friendly term of shall we say £xxx, honour will be satisfied and there is no need to resort to yyy (e.g. the small claims court). Try not to threaten anything unless you have to - it works better if they seem to be offering out of largesse, than if they feel threatened. It's also best to get services as they probably don't cost the company much or anything so you stand a much better chance of getting what you want.

Watchwords are righteous dignity, polite rage and reasonableness (no one's going to give you £500 for your wasted time as your supposed daily salary if they didn't deliver at a specified time). The second you swear or get personal with them you've lost.

Sounds weird but I got a free oven from Sainsbury's last month is this way - and they'd only failed to deliver three times. I got every cable channel bar the naughty ones free for 6 months from C&W because they failed to put in a phone line I wasn't planning on using anyway...

Best of luck

2:51 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Ah, Pipex: cancelled my account and direct debit in December, moved to another provider. Got the confirmation e-mail from the big P.
Then a few weeks later, the e-mails started... and another... I wrote back, explained, said that there was a fault with their system. I was told it wouldn't happen again.


It did, wrote back again, said it was fixed. Then again, this time I was told my account was still active and I'd need to ring customer services.

I wrote back, couldn't be arsed to phone. Touch wood not received anything.

Ironic thing is, I was tempted to go back to Pipex since I moved to TalkTalk (who quickly become synonymous with the phrase 'those cunts on the phone') but now I don't think I'll bother.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Ivan Dobski said...

They probably won't sue. The level of court fees these days it just isn't worth it for anything less than £150. Write to O2 and threaten them with something like the ombudsman (I'm assuming there is one for mobile phone telecoms). Worked a treat when I similar problems with my old gas company. Don't phone them, it's a waste of time.

2:40 AM  
Anonymous Fritz said...

Ah yes, the wonderful offshored British enterprises. When I still lived in Blighty I started getting ntl bills for a cable service we didn't have. Phoned 'em up and they agreed that the village wasn't cabled so there was no way I should be getting bills. Obviously a mistake... easily corrected.. etc.. etc... Sound familiar?

Of course, the threatening letters started. And they got more threatening. Each time a telephone call would elicit the same "computer error, easily fixed" response.

Eventually, after having been threatened with the heavens falling on me and my children and my children's children, I wrote a letter in 6" high letters on A0 drawing paper to their Chairman. I also stated that I was self-employed and that I would therefore have to charge for my time at £80 per hour, minimum charge 4 hours, for all future correspondence with them.

Seems the problem was easily fixed. Never heard another peep from them...

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The bailiffs need a court order to come round and take all your stuff, AFTER you have gone to court.

They do however, try and blag it on your doorstep before they even have a court date, threatening to call the police. 'No, let me call the police', I say.

Just don't answer the door and keep all your windows shut. Actually, I never answer the door, except to neighbours, unless you have an appointment; in writing.

BT Mobile tried to get money from me this way too. I simply told the poor chap at the debt collection agency on the phone that I had all my paperwork and which date was good for him to go to court as I thumbed through my diary. His sheepish response was, 'Could you not just pay it, please?'. Me: 'Click...'

11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you tried threatening them (O2 and the debt company) with The Prevention of Harasement Act. Not what the act was intended for but it may ruffle a few feathers when you threaten them with court.

Black Cloud

3:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah Bailiffs...have no truck with them. As a retired Bobby (full term, front line service and not the bad back at 40 types who I despise as much as Barry does) I encountered a few in my time. Always read the paperwork. One lot from a Scouser private agency were in possession of a warrant which empowered only City Council personnel to act so they were acting unlawfully themselves.
Another was terrorising a little old lady and having eyed up her antique clock was about to climb through a window to 'seize (steal) it' but he desisted after being threatened with arrest for burglary.
Another lot arrived at a garage intent on nicking a tradesman's van over a paltry amount. They had forgotten their paperwork and had the cheek to phone me at the Station and ask me to deliver a copy which they would fax to me (not a legal document if faxed as it could have been doctored). I replied with one of my numerous polite expressions for telling somebody to f*ck off!
Remember, the old Bill are there to prevent any breach of peace and are impartial (although it was always good to see those private agency bully bailiffs slink off with tails between legs). Most cops are on the side of the defenceless.

5:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr McCann.... Priceless British gallows humour.. long may it reign.

8:48 AM  

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