Sunday, 17 March 2013

Did Southern Electric attempt to defraud us?

Update (2013-04-03): The energy regulator Ofgem has fined SSE a record £10.5m for mis-selling.

The UK's 'Big Six' energy suppliers have a reputation for poor customer service, unjustified price increases, and questionable sales tactics. In this post, I'm going to accuse a Southern Electric salesperson of attempted fraud. It's a serious allegation, but as I describe the events I think you'll agree they meet the legal definition. [1]

Firstly, a little history: All properties on our development started with E.ON as their gas and electricity supplier. For the first year after we moved in, representatives of rival suppliers would make door-to-door visits almost every week. As E.ON seemed in no rush to bill us, I put off looking into the prices of rival companies. Seven months after we moved in, a Southern Electric salesperson came by and showed a print-out of their prices and those of their rivals, explaining that we would pay less with them. I agreed to switch.

Shortly afterwards, E.ON sent their only bill for the seven months we had been with them. It was 60% higher than it should have been, but a month later they refunded the overpayment, blaming Southern Electric for the confusion. By this time I wasn't feeling sympathetic to E.ON though – after we switched, an E.ON representative came by claiming that Southern Electric were tricking people into switching, but his aggressive tone meant I shut the door on him.

He might have been right though – a couple of years later Scottish and Southern Energy (Southern Electric's parent company) were found guilty under The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Their doorstep salespeople had falsely claimed that they were cheaper than people's current suppliers.

I decided it was time to switch to a green energy tariff, and after using a price comparison site I settled on EDF Green. Although I was sceptical of the Big Six's commitment to renewable energy, EDF's Green Tariff charged a small premium that went into a fund that awarded grants to renewable energy projects. Even with this premium, they were significantly cheaper than Southern Electric.

Finally, at the end of last year I decided to switch to a true renewable energy supplier: Good Energy. I'll write a little more about Good Energy, and why I chose them over Ecotricity, in a future post.

This brings us to the morning of 7th February, when Clare was woken by a phone call. The caller explained that he was calling from Southern Electric to set up the direct debit to complete the process of moving our account. Clare was confused by this, and said I would call them back when I was home from work. To me it sounded much like the social engineering tricks I frequently encounter as a web developer, most likely conducted by an unrelated third-party, so I decided to ignore it. Two days later the following contract arrived from Southern Electric, showing the call had been genuine:

The letter was addressed to me, and the contract claims I had verbally agreed to switch on the 8th February. At this point I had had no contact with Southern Electric since leaving them in 2011. It is this claim that leads me to allege attempted fraud. (Two minor points to note: the contract has the box allowing them to send me spam already marked, and their standing charge is almost double what I pay with Good Energy.)

I called the Southern Electric helpline, and after ten minutes in a queue I was able to speak to someone. She was very polite and apologetic, and after a further ten minutes, much of which was spent on hold, the transfer had been cancelled. She explained that the salesman who called us would be informed of his 'misunderstanding' to avoid it happening again.

So, everything's fine then? The transfer was cancelled, and all it cost us was time and inconvenience. But how many times has that salesman 'misunderstood' his victims? Were we unlucky enough to be called by the only salesperson using this trick? We're a security-conscious young couple, but what if this had happened to a vulnerable pensioner, living alone, worried about whether they can afford to heat their house over the winter?

[1] Specifically fraud by false representation, an offence under section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006.

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