Consumer rights: Snake oil and energy tariffs – the many faces of mis-selling

The electricity supplier SSE has been fined £10.5m and promises it has changed, but many consumers will be wondering who they can trust

From snake oil to payment protection insurance and energy tariffs – mis-selling takes many forms. There's the straightforward "not what it says on the tin" where you're sold something that is not what it claims to be. Then there are products which do what they claim to do – for some people – but are useless when sold to people who can't use them or don't need them. Payment protection insurance was sold to hundreds of thousands of people who would never be able to claim as exemptions ruled them out.

And then there are the things that are essential but which are sold to you in the wrong way at the wrong price – such as gas and electricity. SSE (formerly Scottish and Southern Energy) is one of the big six energy providers. Over the past few years its managers seem to have assumed that rules about selling didn't apply to its employees. The company has been fined £10.5m for "prolonged and extensive" mis-selling.

Ofgem, the industry watchdog, said the company had allowed sharp selling practices over the phone, on customers' doorsteps and in-store. The judgement against SSE says management wasn't doing enough to prevent mis-selling and was allowing the culture to continue.

Some customers were told they would save money by switching to SSE but ended up being worse off. Others were told they would save more than they did by switching. Still others were told they would save money when in fact they were switched on to a more expensive contract. Even the people employed by the company to make sure that customers were treated fairly and by the rules were on commission, so they had no incentive to report or prevent mis-selling.

SSE says it is very sorry, it has learned its lesson, has completely reformed its business in this area and will be reimbursing customers. It has already paid out £400,000.

SSE isn't alone in breaking the rules and ripping off customers. In March last year, EDF Energy agreed to pay £4.5m to vulnerable customers following breaches of marketing rules. Scottish Power, Npower and E.on are also being investigated, and although there are no findings yet, you could be forgiven for thinking that doesn't leave many companies in the energy industry that consumers can trust.

The Government is debating its new energy bill which will make things simpler and hopefully clearer by limiting the number of tariffs the energy providers can use. It will also force suppliers to move customers on to the cheapest tariff automatically, and tell customers if they could get a better deal on a different tariff. Some of these changes should be in place by the autumn.

In the meantime customers don't know who to trust. If you are thinking of switching, take time to check out all of the options and tariffs and consider going through the price comparison sites. If you think you have paid out more than you should have to SSE and haven't had a letter from them yet, contact the company and ask to be reimbursed.

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Q: I've lived in my leasehold flat for about 20 years. There's 68 years left on the lease.

I'm beginning to worry that if I decide to sell I will have problems finding a buyer. My neighbour tells me that I can extend my lease but that it will cost several thousand pounds.

Can you give me any advice on how to find out what the cost of an extension might be and how to go about it?

MA, Southampton

A: You are entitled to ask for a statutory 90-year extension although the freeholder may agree to a longer one. The shorter the remaining term on the current lease, the more expensive the extension can be.

The Leaseholder Advisory Service's website at lease-advice.org.uk has a lease extension calculator and a wealth of information. I've tried it with your figures and it came up with the rather off-putting figure of £18,000.

However, you might be able to persuade your mortgage lender to lend you the money, or you may find a buyer willing to extend the lease when they buy , or arrange to extend the lease at the same time as you sell, and hand over the money when the buyer pays you.

The first step would be to talk to the freeholder. If you feel it is asking for an unreasonable amount you can go to a Leasehold Valuation Tribunal.

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