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Page last updated at 06:20 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 07:20 UK
Firm denies 'bullying' customers

By Catherine Burns
Newsbeat reporter

A Newsbeat investigation has found evidence of a major rent-to-buy chain bullying and pressurising customers who are falling behind with their payments.

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One Brighthouse customer tells her story

BrightHouse sells home furniture and electrical goods. But a debt charity is warning that it treats people in "an appalling way", and wants the Office of Fair Trading to investigate.

The way it works is simple. Say you need a washing machine, but can't afford to pay for one outright, and can't get a loan. You could go to your local BrightHouse.

The head office is in Watford, but they have stores all round the country. There are no credit checks.

BrightHouse logo and homepage
BrightHouse lets people pay for goods over a number of years

All you would need to do is fill in some paperwork, and agree to make weekly payments. Then, after three years, you'd officially own the washing machine.

It's not the cheapest option. There's a 29.9% APR, and most customers add on extras, like an optional service cover.

By the time you factor all that in, you could end up paying two or three times the cash price.

Despite that, it can seem like the best choice for thousands of people who can't afford to pay outright, and wouldn't be able to get credit.

But the problems start when customers miss payments.

BrightHouse customers have told Newsbeat that staff were "bullying, threatening and rude" to them.

Threats

Michala Todd's been a customer since 2002. In that time she's had a washing machine, fridge freezer, tumble dryer and stereo from them. And until recently, she's been happy with the company.

She says: "It was an easy way and an affordable way to just be able to go and get the essential and necessary things I needed as a mother."

Michala Todd
Michala missed payments after being in hospital after a seizure

She goes into her local store every Tuesday and pays £14.32. But she has severe epilepsy and isn't allowed to work.

A few months ago, she had a bad seizure and was in hospital for two weeks. That meant she missed her BrightHouse payments.

When she got out, she says the company phoned her and told her she had to pay immediately. But Michala explained that she'd just left hospital, and couldn't get to the shop until the following Tuesday.

She claims the BrightHouse employee told her: "If you don't pay us today, there will be a driver at your house within an hour to collect our goods. It's our policy."

"I was absolutely scared. I felt worthless", says Michala. "My kids were there. They were seeing my tears, asking 'Mummy why are you crying?'"

In the end, she managed to borrow the money from her mother.

Kitamba Bugezi has a similar story.

Once, she realised she wasn't going to be able to make her weekly payment, so the day before it was due she called BrightHouse to explain.

As soon as I opened it, he put his foot in. He said 'I've come to collect the goods. Let me in'
Kitamba Bugezi

She says the next morning someone rang her and told her to borrow money from friends and family.

She claims the company rang her constantly all day.

By the afternoon, she says there was a man sitting outside her house in a van. Then he buzzed her doorbell until she came down to answer it.

Kitamba claims: "As soon as I opened it, he put his foot in. He said 'I've come to collect the goods. Let me in'."

When she said no, he threatened to call the police. She says he then told her: "If you don't let me in, there will be more people coming here. We will go upstairs, and we will get the goods."

Guidelines

When you get something on hire purchase you don't own it until you hand over your final payment.

So if you stop paying, the company has the right to repossess their goods. But there are strict rules about how they can do that.

Unless they get a court order they can't just come into your home and take them.

But Tristam Meyrick worked for BrightHouse - he says that's exactly what he used to do.

We would just lie our way around it. Tell them we had the legal right...
Tristam Meyrick, former BrightHouse employee

"We would just lie our way around it. Tell them we had the legal right to be there, and refuse to leave until they gave us the stuff."

He says it took him a long time to realise that what he was doing was wrong.

"Women crying, and taking kids' PlayStations just before Christmas. The worst thing I was ever asked to do was to repossess goods from a dead woman's home."

Satisfied customers

BrightHouse deny that's how the company works. Hamish Paton is their commercial director.

Hamish Paton
BrightHouse says treating customers fairly is their priority

He didn't want to talk about individual customers, but says 96% of customers are satisfied with their service. He says repossession is a last resort.

"We would only ever take the goods with the consent of the customer.

"If there is any instance where our guidelines are not being followed up properly, we would hold our hands up and apologise.

"At the centre of everything we do at BrightHouse is the fair treatment of customers.

"We're very keen to listen, and to understand where we're not offering a good a service as we might, and we're very keen to put that right."

'Growing problem'

Despite the recession, profits are up and business is booming. With 179 stores, BrightHouse is the biggest rent-to-own company in the country. It's planning on opening another 20 outlets this year.

Chris Tapp is director of the charity Credit Action. He says companies like BrightHouse are a "headline concern" in 2009.

We've seen an enormous growth in this type of issue coming up
Chris Tapp, Credit Action

"In the past 12 months we've seen an enormous growth in this type of issue coming up, with the number of people who are using these type of companies and then getting into difficulties with them.

"As the economy has struggled, they have boomed and thrived, and we've seen more and more of this type of problem.

"In terms of customer service, it's really quite appalling."

He's calling for authorities like the Office of Fair Trading to get involved.

Newsbeat has forwarded its information onto the OFT. They say that although they can't comment on individual investigations, they will look into the complaints.



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