06/20/2013 22:16 EDT | Updated 08/20/2013 05:12 EDT

BC Hydro overbilling drives out Burnaby condo residents

A CBC News investigation has discovered BC Hydro has been massively overcharging several tenants in a Burnaby condo tower after installing smart meters, forcing some of them to move out.

When tenant George Sayed got his combined January and February electricity bill, he couldn't believe it. His usual charge of around $100 had skyrocketed to more than $500 for his small 900-square-foot condo.

When the 24-year-old student called to complain, BC Hydro told him it was his fault, and suggested he switch off his heat, fireplace and other appliances at the circuit breakers in his electrical panel.

"BC Hydro told me to turn it off. And I just thought it was crazy," he told CBC News.

Sayed said he never used the electric fireplace and barely heats his place. But, following BC Hydro's advice, he began unplugging his appliances at night to conserve power.

When his March and April BC Hydro bill came, he expected a drop. Instead, he was hit with another $500 charge — a total of more than $1,000 in just four months.

"I felt like I was played. I felt like I was scammed. I was lied to. I was manipulated," he said.

"When the big bills started hitting me, I just told myself, how am I going to pay for this? I mean how? I'm a student."

Sayed wasn't alone. His neighbour Sedi Minachi has seen her latest hydro bill more than double from the same time last year, to $348. And she was also unable to get BC Hydro to admit there was something wrong with it.

"Very frustrating, It's going on and on and it seems like we don't get anywhere," Minachi told CBC News.

Bills spike for 9 residents

In all, CBC News found nine residents of the Burnaby condo complex, near the corner of Lougheed Highway and Holdom Avenue, that had seen their bimonthly hydro bills spike since January.

Some were even taking out loans to cover the unexpected cost.

And still, BC Hydro didn't admit any error or any problem on their side, and maintained that all the residents were at fault.

But once CBC News took up their cases with BC Hydro, the Crown corporation soon admitted the customers were being overbilled.

It turns out BC Hydro had installed smart meters in the building, but they had not been hooked up yet to the billing system.

So instead of billing the tenants for the energy they were using, it was guessing at their power consumption — but the estimates were based on past consumption during the coldest months of the year.

Jim Nicholson, the director of customer care, called it a "clerical error."

"That was an error and we've corrected it now and customers will be receiving their correct bills," he said.

Systems in place, says BC Hydro

Nicholson says BC Hydro uses estimates regularly when meters are not working, but says it has systems in place to ensure mistakes are caught and customers are eventually billed for the energy they actually use.

But Nicholson admits this might not be the only condo building where the clerical error might be leading to serious overbilling.

"There could be, but I wouldn't say that it's widespread," he told CBC News.

As a result of CBC's investigation BC Hydro is now issuing refunds and apologizes for the mistake, but for some of the residents it all comes too late.

"I finalized my decision, I finally decided to move," said Sayed.

CBC News has learned Sayed is just one of several residents who have either given notice to their landlords or put their condos up for sale because they feared they would be unable to pay anymore BC Hydro bills.