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Thursday 27 Nov 2014

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Calls for Office of Fair Trading investigation into major rent-to-buy chain after Radio 1's Newsbeat reveals customer bullying

A BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat investigation has found evidence of a major rent-to-buy chain bullying and pressurising customers who are falling behind with their payments.

Some customers of BrightHouse, the biggest rent-to-own company in the UK, who have their head office in Watford, have told Newsbeat that staff were "bullying, threatening and rude" to them.

A debt charity is warning that it treats people in "an appalling way", and wants the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to investigate.

Michala Todd is a BrightHouse customer since 2002. Until recently she was 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 had severe epilepsy seizure and was in hospital for two weeks and missed her BrightHouse payments. When she got out, she says the company phoned her and told her she had to pay immediately.

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."

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

Another BrightHouse customer, Kitamba Bugezi, told Newsbeat that she called the company in advance to explain that she was not going to be able to make her weekly payment.

She claims that, the next morning, the company rang constantly and told her to borrow money from friends and family.

By the afternoon, a man turned up outside her house in a van.

"As soon as I opened it [the door], he put his foot in. He said 'I've come to collect the goods. Let me in'," she says. When she said no, he threatened to call the police.

She claims that then he 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."

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 is planning on opening another 20 this year.

Chris Tapp, Director of the charity Credit Action, says companies like BrightHouse are a concern and he calls for authorities, like the OFT, to investigate.

"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 this type of companies and then getting into difficulties with them," he says.

"We're massively worried about the growth of these types of companies. 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."

"We think that is something the OFT really needs to be investigating," he adds.

Newsbeat has forwarded information on to the OFT.

A spokesperson there says they cannot comment on individual investigations, but that they will look into the complaints.

Hamish Paton, BrightHouse Commercial Director, declined to discuss individual examples but insisted 96% of customers are satisfied with their service and 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," he says.

"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."

Notes to Editors

Any use of the above must credit BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat.

PH

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