Watchdog accuses electricity firm of mis-selling

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The Independent Online

Southern Electric, which has 3 million customers between the central south coast and Oxford, was accused this week of cheating on the doorstep by energywatch, the independent gas and electricity consumer watchdog.

Southern Electric, according to energywatch, has failed to curb a spate of mis-selling by its sales force, despite hundreds of complaints from consumers and the fact that energywatch figures show it has one of the best records. The company could face regulatory action, including a substantial fine, because energywatch has asked Ofgem, to look at poor selling practices by the company.

Andrew Horsler, energywatch's chairman, said: "Consumers have complained about deceptive and unscrupulous selling practices by Southern Electric salesmen but the company has failed to put a stop to them."

Reported tricks include claiming to be from the regulator, telling customers they are on an out-of-date tariff, saying that local meters are faulty, and that prices are rising because electricity now has to come from France.

Denis Kirby, Southern Electric's spokesman, said: "We take these complaints extremely seriously, and we do take disciplinary steps, including sacking sales people. We are working with energywatch to ensure that our good record is maintained." Mr Kirby said that half the company's sales people were directly employed, and of those 10 to 15 per cent were on commission. The other half are employed by agencies but wore Southern Electric uniforms. They are paid varying mixtures of commission and salary, but commission is paid only after customers have stayed with the company for a given period. Last September a Southern Electric salesman was accused of posing as a meter reader to enter a customer's home. The man, who was employed by a subcontractor, Universal Energy, was wearing a Southern Electric T-shirt.

Mr Horsler said: "Consumers have reported that salesmen have become intimidating when their cover is blown. One householder said he was shaking with fear after a brush with a Southern Electric salesman."

An Ofgem spokesman said: "We take allegations of mis-selling very seriously, and we will review the evidence energywatch has given us." Ofgem can impose a fine equal to a tenth of a company's annual sales.

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