Smart meters will spy on us!

Smart metersEurope's privacy watchdog has reignited the debate over whether or not smart meters will monitor our behaviour at home, with the information used against us.

Smart meters are going to happen, barring any major, unexpected U-turn. Nearly every home will have one by 2019.
But there have been concerns about just what information will be held about us by energy companies and, more importantly, how that information will be used.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (the privacy regulator for the EU) has made fresh claims that the new system will 'enable massive collection of personal data, which can track what members of a household do within the privacy of their own homes.'
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What is a smart meter?
A smart meter is a device installed in your home, which records your gas and electricity use.

Essentially, it's like the meter you already have, but a more intelligent model. The information gathered is automatically sent to your supplier. You will have a one meter for your electricity and another for gas.

Smart meters will start being installed in homes officially from 2014. Some energy suppliers, including British Gas and First Utility, have already started offering the new meters to customers and other suppliers are likely to follow suit before the national roll-out. It's all part of a plan to upgrade an old gas and electricity system and to make it more cost-efficient in the future.

What are the benefits?
Bills are based on accurate and up-to-date information, as opposed to estimated bills. So you only pay for what you use. It also means you don't have to provide meter readings yourself and could even see the introduction of tailor-made tariffs.

As an added bonus you also get a nice little display monitor showing you how much energy you're using, which could serve as a reminder if electricity or gas is being wasted unnecessarily.

There is also no fee to pay for having the meter installed.

So far, so good.

What about the drawbacks?
Smart meters don't instantly slash the cost of your energy bills. It's hoped that if you see what energy you are using, you will cut your usage and lower your bills that way. You can also still Compare energy tariffs here.

But rolling-out smart meters to 30 million UK homes and businesses doesn't come cheap. It's likely to cost in the region of £11.7 billion and will be paid for by the energy companies. The worry is that the cost will be met by suppliers pushing up prices. For more on this readConcerns over energy smart meters.

What's the privacy regulator worried about?
The watchdog has warned that smart meters could be used to track our patterns of behaviour. So your supplier would know when you're away on holiday or at work, if you use a special medical device or a baby monitor and how you like to spend your free time.

Try not to be alarmed – it doesn't mean a nosey-parker is watching your every move and jotting it all down in a notebook. It simply means that what you're up to can be determined by the energy you're using and when.

For example, if no energy use is recorded during the middle of the day, it's reasonable to assume you're at work. Or if there's no use for two weeks in July, chances are you're on holiday.

While you might not care if this information is recorded and stored, you might if it was used for marketing by other companies. If your energy supplier knows you typically go away every July and passes this on to a third party, the last thing you want is to be bombarded with offers for travel insurance.

The regulator also mentioned 'price discrimination', whereby a third party company could use information stored by your energy supplier against you when quoting for products and services.

What next?
There is nothing to say your information will definitely be used in this way. The data regulator simply wants the European Commission (EC) to make it crystal clear how countries can ensure smart meters are safe for customers.

The EC will be providing more definite guidelines for countries in Europe going forward and the UK Government has already proposed giving consumers more power over how much data is stored and who can access it - with the exception of basic data used for billing.

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Smart meters will spy on us!

Using a mobile phone to make and receive calls, send texts and browse the web while abroad can be extremely costly – especially if you are travelling outside the European Union (EU), where calls can cost up to 10 times as much as at home.

To avoid high charges, Carphone Warehouse suggests tourists ensure a data cap is in place, use applications to check data usage, turn off 'data roaming', avoid data-intensive applications such as Google Maps and YouTube and use wi-fi spots to update social networking sites.

Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) is supposed to help people to continue meeting their loan, mortgage or credit card repayments if they fall ill or lose their jobs. However, policies are often over-priced, riddled with exclusions and sold to people who could not make a claim if they needed to.

At one point, sale of this cover - which was often included automatically in loan repayments - was estimated to boost the banks' profits by up to £5 billion a year.
Now, though, consumers who were mis-sold PPI can fight back by complaining to the bank or lender concerned and taking their case to the Financial Ombudsman Service (08000 234567) should the response prove unsatisfactory.

It could be you, but let's face it, it probably won't be. In fact, buying a ticket for the Lotto only gives you a 1 in 13.9 million chance of winning the jackpot.

With odds like that, you would almost certainly be better off hanging on to your cash and saving it in a high-interest account.

No-frills airlines such as EasyJet may promote rock-bottom prices on their websites. But the overall fare you pay can be surprisingly high once extras such as luggage and credit card payment fees have been added - a process known as drip pricing.

Taking one piece of hold baggage on a return EasyJet flight, for example, adds close to £20 to the cost of your flight, while paying by credit card increases the price by a further £10.
It may therefore be worth comparing the total cost with that of a flight with a standard airline such as British Airways.

Cash advances, which include cash withdrawals, are generally charged at a much higher rate of interest than standard purchases.

While the average credit card interest rate is around 17%, a typical cash withdrawal of £500, for example, is charged at more than 26%.
What's more, as the interest accrues from the date of the transaction, rather than the next payment date, costs will mount up even if you clear your balance in full with your next payment.

Supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda often run promotions under which you can, for example, get three products for the price of two.

However, it is only worth taking advantage of these deals if you will actually use the products. Otherwise, you are simply buying for the sake of it, which is a waste of your hard-earned cash.
To avoid paying over the odds, it is also worth checking the price per kilo to ensure that larger 'economy' packs really are cheaper than the smaller versions.

Buy a train ticket at the station on the day of travel and the price is likely to give you a shock - especially if you are travelling a long distance at a busy time of day.

However, you can cut the cost of train travel by 50% or more by going online and making the purchase beforehand - especially if you book 12 weeks in advance, which is when the cheapest tickets are on sale.
Other ways to reduce the price you pay include avoiding peak times and taking advantage of so-called carnet tickets, which allow you to buy, for example, 12 journeys for the price of 10.

Most High Street banks offer packaged accounts that come with monthly fees ranging from £6.50 up to as much as £40, with a typical account charging about £15 per month.

Various benefits, such as travel insurance and mobile phone insurance, are offered in return for this fee. But whether or not it is worth paying for them depends on your individual circumstances.
Before signing up, it is therefore essential to check that you will make use of enough of the benefits, and that you cannot get them for less elsewhere.

Overseas money transfers or travel money purchases attract the same high rate of interest as credit card cash withdrawals.

Worse still, most credit cards – and debit cards – also charge you a foreign loading fee if you use them to make purchases while abroad.
You can, however, avoid these charges by using a Saga Platinum or Nationwide Building Society credit card.

Numbers starting 0871 cost 10p or more from a landline, while those starting 09 can cost more than £1 a minute from a mobile phone.

And the operators of these high-cost phone lines, some of which are banks, often get a cut of the call charges.
Most 09 numbers are linked to scams and should therefore be avoided at all costs, while 0871 numbers can often be bypassed by searching for an alternative local rate numbers on the saynoto0870.com.
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