A year of taking on the big boys '“ so readers are treated fairly
Over the past 12 months, this column has clawed back thousands of pounds for readers in compensation and disputed sums, exposing unfairness, incompetence, cheats and scams in the process.
As part of Local Newspaper Week, Richard Thomson looks back at 12 months of fighting to make sure consumers get a fair deal.
ver the past 12 months, this column has clawed back thousands of pounds for readers in compensation and disputed sums, exposing unfairness, incompetence, cheats and scams in the process.
Behind the scenes, hundreds of queries and appeals for help and advice have been answered, empowering readers who’ve been driven to distraction trying to resolve issues with uncompromising firms both large and small.
Crass blundering and billing wrangles with the big six energy providers featured high on the list of Streetwise success stories.
We kicked off the year in style when we persuaded Npower to refund 83-year-old pensioner Eileen Brunton £2,947 for energy she hadn’t used. Eileen had been battling with the firm for three years over a billing issue, but they quickly caved in once we got on the case.
Chris and Beryl Scott’s sleepless nights were brought to an abrupt end after they switched providers and we intervened with ScottishPower to write off an inaccurate bill for £10,600.
In the process we flagged up the incompetent energy sector’s billing bungles with regulator the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, Ofgem.
Our voice was added to the deluge of individual complaints about ScottishPower, who were fined a record £18m last April for treating customers unfairly.
Self-employed carpenter Paul Murray’s bank balance was given a boost by £3,886 after he turned up at the weekly Streetwise surgery in the Gosport Discovery Centre.
We helped him have his day in court and obtain a full refund plus costs when a rogue online car dealer sold him a clapped out van with deadly engine exhaust fumes leaking into the cab.
Gutted Leigh Park motorist Liam Brennan felt he’d been taken for a ride when a £500 replacement clutch fitted to his Vauxhall Zafira by the Portsmouth branch of Mr Clutch packed up while he was driving it back home from the garage.
We discovered they’d fitted the wrong clutch but despite completely falling down on the job they point blank refused to refund him.
Justice was done when Liam revealed he’d paid the firm by credit card. We helped him persuade his bank to step in and arrange a £500 chargeback.
Hilsea pensioner Mary Byles was horrified when she discovered Petersfield Insulations Ltd had misled her by insisting she could save money by insulating her home.
Following a Streetwise special investigation, the company was suspended from membership of the industry trade body, the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency (CIGA).
The firm had been rumbled cold-calling residents on her estate smart talking them into insulating the walls of their timber-framed homes under a Government-sponsored ‘Green Deal’ energy-saving scheme.
Insulating timber-framed properties is a no-go area. It can result in catastrophic long-term structural defects making them unsaleable. After our exposure CIGA carried out a free-of-charge technical inspection and promptly removed the damaging insulating material from their homes.
But even this ‘Green Deal’ ruse was dwarfed by many readers from across the paper’s circulation area complaining they’d been flannelled into signing up to 20-year-plus loans to be repaid in instalments via their electricity provider.
Bridgemary couple Fred and Beryl Bardock were typical of readers who’d been told by reps from Home Energy Lifestyle Management Systems (HELMS) that they could have electricity saving roof panels fitted free.
Under the government’s energy saving scheme, surplus units of electricity generated would be sold back to their electricity company, dramatically slashing their bills and more than cover the cost of fitting them.
The panels failed to generate sufficient electricity leaving them saddled with debt they were left struggling to repay.
They only realised they’d been misled when HELMS went spectacularly bust and the government quietly dumped the flagship green energy-saving policy in 2015.
Significantly the sheer number of readers who contact the column in their droves have not had a square deal.
Many top high street firms continue to cross our radar with monotonous regularity. BT, Vodafone, Talk Talk, EE, SCS, and Currys to name but a few.
TalkTalk demonstrated it was more concerned with putting profit before customer satisfaction when they demanded a £256 termination payment from pensioner couple Susan Bowyer and Dave Worsfold. They’d complained about the firm’s legendary abysmal broadband service and tried to switch supplier.
But reader Stephanie Lee’s long-running bungled billing spat with communications giant Vodafone was quickly resolved after we intervened and a hotly disputed bill for £261.89 was cancelled.
We also scored highly with a Southsea pensioner family headed by Trecia Aspey who ended up being refunded £1,700 for a disastrous Cotswold Christmas break organised by Diamond holidays. The firm regularly featured in our columns, and finally went to the wall in March.
Perhaps our most notable triumph was the £1,900 refund we secured for Garry Fleming after he discovered a semi-professional SLR camera he bought in France was a ‘grey’ import and not intended for sale in Europe.
It went wrong only months after he bought it but it was only then it came to light it was not guaranteed by Nikon UK.
Facing a huge language barrier, we spoke to the shop manager in Marseilles for him and made it clear a refund was due. When we got a point blank refusal we contacted the DGCCRF French equivalent of trading standards.
After they moved in and felt his collar Garry arranged to return the camera and his bank account was credited with the full amount.
But amidst all the incidents of raw deals dished out to unwary consumers by traders large and small, there were still some reasons to be cheerful.
In standing up for readers’ rights with some of the most powerful companies in the land Streetwise encountered examples where firms were genuinely anxious to learn from their mistakes and bend over backwards to be helpful.
They expressed genuine remorse, and promptly put up their corporate hands when they made mistakes.
They provided generous compensation, and went out of their way to tackle institutional problems to learn lessons
Much-maligned Barclays Bank came up trumps when we highlighted the misfortune of reader Wendy Morgan.
Although they could have looked the other way, she was instantly refunded £800 as a gesture of goodwill after disaster struck their long-anticipated family holiday and their outbound flight to Corfu was cancelled due to an air-traffic control strike.
Fareham disabled pensioner couple Jim Bartlett and Jean Chase-Long were full of praise for the way Acorn Stair lifts were quick to make amends and replaced their faulty £4,000 machine once we alerted the company to their plight.
Help was at hand for eighty-eight year old David Johns. He came all the way from Denmead to tell us his story about a £1,998 hearing aid that failed to live up to his expectations.
David agreed to buy the aid from Hidden Hearing Ltd, whose company mantra is ‘We listen, you hear’. They more than lived up to their formidable reputation when we highlighted David’s misgivings about the product. Although it wasn’t faulty they agreed an instant no-quibble refund.
Pauline Nolan was full of praise for Eden Mobility, after we stepped in to highlight two-years of serious ongoing problems with her £3,000 buggy.
Post sales manager Kristian Johnson immediately came to the rescue and apologised profusely. Pauline was offered an immediate refund of £200 for faulty batteries, and the product was completely stripped, rebuilt and road-tested to her complete satisfaction.
Although Streetwise consistently wins readers’ battles against incompetent, unfair, and sometimes downright criminal trading practices, we accept we’ve not won the war. We are not complacent.
As long as determined readers are willing to stand up for their rights, we’ll continue to champion their cause and fight their corner.