Ever used TripAdvisor to check a hotel or restaurant? Checked out your plumber on Checkatrade? Read a blog that reviewed the latest gizmo? All of the above are the subject of a new consultation by the Competition and Markets Authority on how information in online reviews and endorsements is used.
The CMA (which took over the things previously looked at by the Office of Fair Trading) is asking consumers, businesses and other interested parties to come forward with their views. In simple terms, the CMA, which is “committed to looking at evolving online markets”, has realised that “large numbers” of consumers read and rely upon online reviews when making purchasing decisions. These include sites like TripAdvisor and Checkatrade which do so formally, and blogs that have less formal reviews.
Both TripAdvisor and Checkatrade have been accused of having misleading or downright fake reviews, with stories of hotels offering sweeteners to guests who offer good reviews on the site-as well as tales of customers trying to hold hoteliers over a barrel with the threat of a poor review. The CMA is “aware of a number of potential concerns about the trustworthiness or impartiality of information in some reviews and endorsements that is being provided to consumers” and wants to investigate if there is anything it ought to be doing something about. It is also mindful of the effect negative reviews can have on businesses, and that is why those affected by review sites are also being asked to comment.
To be honest, the CMA isn’t sure what exactly it will do if it finds Things To Be Concerned About, but possible action includes: launching a market study covering this sector, or a part of it; initiating consumer enforcement action; advocating legislative change to government; providing guidance to industry or consumers, or both; and /or seeking voluntary action from the industry. Or doing absolutely nothing.
Nisha Arora, CMA Senior Director, Consumer, said:
The information contained in online reviews and endorsements can be a powerful force in the hands of consumers. Informed consumers make better decisions, driving competition on price and quality. Businesses have always known that ‘word of mouth’ is one of the most important factors for potential customers; what online reviews and blogs do is to provide a greatly amplified version of this. However, for this sector to work well it is important that this information is genuine, relevant and trustworthy.”
More detail is available on the call for information page, and the deadline for responses to the call for information is 25 March 2015.
Lenovo annoyed everyone when it turned out that they’d put Superfish in a load of their laptops. The company said that it was supposed to enhance the user’s experience, but any fool could’ve told them that this was never going to be the case.
No-one wants a program that offers you shopping tips, as most people already know what they’re shopping for, or indeed, are hit with enough adverts while online, that there’s buyers fatigue while on the computer.
As such, Lenovo have been hit with a cyber-attack and, again, those cute Lizard Squad guys were behind it, turning their attention away from games consoles long enough to cause the laptop vendor some grief.
“One effect of this attack was to redirect traffic from the Lenovo website,” Lenovo said in a statement. “We are also actively investigating other aspects. We are responding and have already restored certain functionality to our public-facing website.”
The company is also “actively reviewing” their network security and will be taking steps “to protect the integrity of our users’ information and experience”. They’re bloody obsessed with ‘user experience’ aren’t they?
If you missed the news, Lenovo are no longer dealing with Superfish software after a huge amount of complaints.
Do you believe businesses have your best interests as a consumer at heart? If you don’t, you’re not alone, as a new CBI poll has found than more than seven in ten of us believe businesses abuse our trust and sacrifice loyalty for a quick return. ‘Profit’ is, apparently, being used “like a dirty word” by the majority of consumers.
The YouGov poll of more than 2,000 UK adults for the CBI’s trust-in-business campaign found that 72% of respondents believed businesses put profit before the needs of consumers, and 66% said that “businesses put profit before the wellbeing of their workforces”.
But are most of us living in some kind of cloud cuckoo land? Far from being a dirty word, profits are essential to the successful and continued running of a business. Interestingly, 70% of those surveyed also said profits were a “good thing”. It seems businesses are stuck between a rock and a hard place of making profits while also taking excellent care of consumers, even if this would adversely affect profits. But perhaps this is not an impossible dream- some of the most successful UK brands at the moment are those, like John Lewis, who are recognised as ‘consumer-friendly’ brands. However, it seems much of the issue surrounds trust- we don’t mind businesses making profits so long as they do it in the right way (with boycott favourites Starbucks and Amazon clearly not doing things the ‘right’ way), with more than three quarters of survey respondents saying they want businesses to “be more transparent” about how they earn their profits.
Katja Hall, the CBI’s deputy director-general, said: “Despite support for profits as a ‘good thing’, they continue to be demonised widely. We need to recalibrate this debate.”
Which!!! executive director, Richard Lloyd, said, insightfully: “Successful businesses know that by giving people the products and service they want, at a fair price, they’ll have happy customers who are more likely to stay loyal. But firms harm their own reputation and damage trust in their industry when they neglect the basics and fail to put the customer first.”
Those irritating gits who run companies that mither everyone with nuisance calls and texts are looking at some new regulations that will slap them with huge fines. We’re talking penalties of (up to, of course) £500,000.
The current laws don’t do much to discourage these spam merchants, but that’s apparently going to change, as new rules will make it much easier to penalise them.
They come into play from April 6th and they mean that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) won’t have to prove that unwanted messages are causing a “substantial damage or substantial distress” any more.
In addition to that, the Government are also looking at bringing in new rules which will see that executives on the board of these businesses will also be held responsible for these calls and messages.
“For far too long companies have bombarded people with unwanted marketing calls and texts, and escaped punishment because they did not cause enough harm,” said digital economy minister Ed Vaizey. “This change will make it easier for the Information Commissioner’s Office to take action against offenders and send a clear message to others that harassing consumers with nuisance calls or texts is just not on.”
We all know how slippery these cold-callers are, so it would be wise to avoid holding your breath until we actually see someone getting a massive fine. Still, this is, initially, very good news for everyone.
According to Sky News, the company called PaymyPCN.net, which has collected penalty charges for two decades has a direct link to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) database, which means people who shouldn’t be looking, can see drivers’ names and addresses.
Not only that, there’s public access to the content of emails that are appealing charges and photos of drivers and the cars. In addition to all that, this database allows the aforementioned photos to be uploaded and deleted, which is just magic.
How did this all come about? Well, a link to all that lovely data was published on Twitter by Michael Green after a private parking firm sent it to someone in error.
Green said: “I am not surprised by this. The DVLA claims to have safeguards in place to ensure drivers’ details are safe but these only exist as media soundbites. Our campaign challengethefine.com aims to get people compensated for parking data breaches. Despite the RAC Foundation questioning the legality of these charges the DVLA still passes millions of details on to private firms.”
Of course, this is the DVLA that have come under heavy fire for their collective failure to vet and audit the companies in which they are prepared to sell the names and addresses of motorists, so this latest news isn’t a shock at all. This is also the same DVLA who have been acting unlawfully when it comes to losing your letters that you’ve sent them (and here’s what you can do if the DVLA say they’ve lost your letter).
A DVLA spokeswoman said: “This is not a DVLA error. We take our duty to safeguard data very seriously and we will not compromise data security. DVLA does not hold or provide data such as photographs, emails and phone numbers to private parking companies.”
As for PayMyPCN – if you want to get in touch with them to see about data breaches, here’s the number to call and their email: Tel: 03450 737 209, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sometimes, businesses are so bad it is almost literally beyond belief, and smaller energy supplier Spark Energy has now been fined by Ofgem for falling squarely in that category. The crime? On top of sky-high charges and inaccurate billing systems, Spark Energy simply ignored customers’ requests to leave the supplier and just continued to bill them. Astounding.
An Ofgem investigation found that up to 29,000 households were left facing “eye-watering” inaccurately high bills and “staggeringly bad” customer service and that customers were “prevented” from leaving over a three year period between June 2010 and May 2013.
Many of Spark’s customers were tenants in rented accommodation who were signed up automatically by letting agents, and who then found themselves facing the highest pay-monthly tariff on the market. Ofgem’s £250,000 fine also took accounts of billing technologies that were “not reliable and generated inaccurate bills”, and yet, a bit like Hotel California, guests at Spark Energy could never leave.
Or could they. It gets even better as it appears some select few customers were permitted to escape Spark’s clutches- but only if they were a customer Spark didn’t want, and then they were switched against their will and without their knowledge. Ofgem documents suggest that only 705 customers were able to leave the supplier. These were customers in debt and between August 2011 and May 2013 Spark used switching websites itself and signed these customers up for different suppliers without their knowledge.
“Customers would not know the transfer had been completed or the identity of the new supplier until they received a welcome letter or email from the new supplier,” Ofgem said.
And if all that weren’t enough, Spark also failed to return cash to customers who were in credit in good time and didn’t deal with complaints properly. The company has agreed to pay £250,000 to Citizens Advice in lieu of a larger financial penalty after admitting to breaching a string of regulations.
Ofgem said: “From June 2010 to May 2013, Spark blanket objected to consumers switching their supply contract to another provider. As a result, consumers were unable to… choose a cheaper supplier (which would have been possible for pay monthly customers as Spark was the most expensive supplier during the period).”
“It is clear from the complaints evidence that some customers found their experience with Spark at the time extremely frustrating,” Ofgem finished in a totally obvious statement.
A spokesman for Spark Energy said, inadequately: “We welcome the manner in which Ofgem has dealt with these issues. We’ve learned valuable lessons from this process and recognise there were things we should have done differently, and we apologise for these failings.”
He went on: “However we’re pleased Ofgem has recognised the progress we’ve made over the past 21 months to transform our levels of customer service in this complex and difficult market.” We’re just surprised they have any customers left- unless they have all tried unsuccessfully to leave too…
So it is of little surprise that three of the budget shops have beaten the biggest supermarkets when it comes to customer satisfaction, with Aldi, coming out on top, out of the discounters.
Concerning value for money, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland unsurprisingly beat Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, according to a survey by Which!!! The key factor was that shoppers felt they were paying less without having to worry about a drop in quality.
When it comes to own label products, again, Aldi and Lidl matched the big guns while Iceland was deemed to be the shop that had the best customer service.
The overall winner wasn’t a discount supermarket though, with Waitrose getting the best overall score. However, Waitrose only beat Aldi by a single point when it came down to it. The trouble for the big supermarkets here is that they have no idea whether to try and go upmarket or take on the discounters.
The table looks like this:
1. Waitrose 73
2. Aldi 72
3. Lidl 69
4. Iceland 69
5. M&S 69
6. Morrisons 63
Terrible news for Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, but marginally good news for Morrisons. The retailer who will be most unhappy at the results of the survey will be The Co-op, who was named the worst supermarket in Britain for being overpriced and having lousy customer services. They scored a paltry 49 out of 100.
Which!!! said: “The Co-op is once again the worst major supermarket and the gap between it and its rivals is even wider than in 2014. On value for money it’s shockingly behind everyone else. It has the worst rating for own-label products.” Asda, meanwhile, were voted the worst when it comes to online groceries, with Ocado topping that poll.
Tampons! The scourge of wimpy men the world over who feel a bit awkward for having to buy something that goes in a lady and gets some gunky blood on it. Of course, you don’t buy them soiled so you’d think they’d treat them like buying toilet roll, but no, it makes some blokes screw their faces up. The wusses.
Anyway, the weird attitude toward tampons is, bafflingly, still a thing in 2015, where they’re still a product that is deemed ‘a luxury’ for women and are taxed accordingly. Presumably, women are supposed to use bits of old rag or something, which would stink up the place and ensure that they couldn’t work properly or function as normal members of society.
With that, a petition is doing the rounds, with over 150,000 signatures aiming to ditch the tax on tampons.
There’s been a 5% tax on tampons for years now, because HMRC think that they’re a ‘non-essential, luxury’ item. As the petition points out, this is a bizarre decision that is costing consumers money, needlessly, given that tax-exempt things include cold sandwiches, ’edible sugar jellies’ and ‘crocodile meat’.
It is nigh-on impossible to argue against the fact that tampons are as close to an absolutely necessary product for millions of people, making this one of the most baffling consumer issues of the past 50-odd years.
The petition says: “Sanitary products control and manage menstruation. They are essential because without them, those who menstruate would have no way of pursuing a normal, flexible, public or private life and would be at risk of jeopardising their health. We should all feel free to enjoy a life of our choice: period or no period.”
“Essential items should not be taxed because tax implements a monetary discouragement that lessens a product’s accessibility and affordability. It is therefore damaging to stand by a tax that has restricted the public’s access to healthcare and constrained their ability to consume a vital range of products for decades.”
“We are here to remind HMRC that menstruating men and women exist and that public policy should reflect this. Tax allocations should expose the needs of society as a whole, and the needs of those who menstruate as well as those who don’t. Because we care about these people, this campaign was made in support of tax allocations representing them and reflecting something that is vital.”
Insert your own ‘Tax office rakes in blood money’ joke here.
Basically, when their 30-day free trial ended, they were faced with the regular £79-per-year subscription. Naturally, in the small print of the T&Cs, it says that, once your free trial period ends, you’ll be switched to the yearly rate.
Problematic TV personality Giles Coren found out about all this and wasn’t happy, taking to Twitter to vent some spleen. He said: “You bastards Amazon! I can’t believe you’ve been screwing me for £79 a year for Prime! I had no idea.”
“I mean, Amazon offer a free trial in 2012, then quietly start charging £79 and never tell me. That’s what sicko porn sites do! I’ve heard…” He added: “I apologise for all these retweets re @amazon scam, I know it’s losing me followers. But this cynical corporate rape is too scummy to ignore”
The problem is, the service was £49 per year, but then it was increased to £79 last year, which no-one seemed to know about.
If you think you’ve signed up for an Amazon Prime content and are in your free period and don’t want to end up paying for the service, here’s what you should do.
Go to Amazon and hit ‘My Account’ at the top right corner of the page and, in there, go to ‘Settings’ and then hit ‘Account Settings’. There’ll be a column called ‘Manage Prime Membership’. You want to be hitting that, obviously.
Once you’ve done that, a new page will pop-up, which will tell you whether or not you’ve signed up to Amazon Prime, how long you’ve been a member for and who is paying for it.
Here, you’ll see a button to stop your Amazon Prime membership. Importantly, if you think you’ve been incorrectly charged for the service, you can apply for a refund on the customer services page.
It is official too. An Amazon spokesperson said: “Customers who sign up to a free trial of Prime receive an email informing them of the duration of the free trial and how to avoid continuing to paid Prime Membership.”
“Customers who become full Prime members can cancel their membership at any time and we will refund the full membership if the customer has not made any eligible purchases or used any Prime benefits. So as long as you haven’t used the free delivery, downloaded or streamed any videos through the service, or borrowed a Kindle book, you can simply cancel the membership and reclaim the subscription.”
Spring might be in the air, with Easter on the far horizon, but Citizen’s Advice aren’t feeling very cheerful, with the issue of a new report that estimates consumers are losing almost a tenth of their income through problems with faulty goods, bad business practice and poor service.
Each year, Citizens Advice deals with 1.4m problems related to consumer goods, services and credit receives 3,000 calls a day. The charity has now calculated that £1 in every £10.60 earned was being lost as a result of poor practice by businesses used by consumers.
In its new report, Consumer Challenges 2015, Citizens Advice said consumers lost an average of £250, which for the poorest fifth of households is the equivalent of 19% of monthly income.
Interestingly, credit card debt is no longer the biggest debt issue for consumers, with complaints around these debts set to drop by 12% to 155,700 over the year. The top concern for consumers is now council tax debt, with Citizen’s Advice expecting to deal with 191,400 council tax debt issues in 2014/15 – a 20% increase on the previous year. Rising renta are also high on the consumer agenda, it said, with the number of rental debts reported to the on track to reach 122,800 by the end of March.
However, debt in itself is no longer the biggest problem facing clients. In 2008, debt issues made up 32% of issues while benefits and tax credit issues accounted for 27% of problems; by the end of 2012 it said this had switched to 29% and 37% respectively, with the advent of Universal Credit likely to exacerbate the problem further.
The top five sources of consumer problems, apart from debt and benefits, were secondhand cars, home improvements, energy, telecoms and furniture. One in four people seeking help had lost £600 or more, while one client faced losing up to £33,000 due to problems with a motor home.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said “Some firms are using hidden terms and unfair cancellation processes to extort money from their customers. Tough times can be a fertile breeding ground for these kinds of bad practices. As a recovery takes hold, particularly with public spending so tight, industry, government and regulators need to help households by fixing failures in consumer markets.”
That’s right – a customer by the name of Janine Hughes bought a latte and found that it tasted a bit weird and, on inspecting the hot beverage, found that it was mixed with some worker’s blood. It might be a simple accident, but we’ve convinced ourselves that this is some Illuminati business going down.
Hughes bought her bloody coffee from the drive-through in Swansea and, on finding some human innards in it, she went back to find out what was going on. She was told that her barista had cut his hand while doing her drink.
Now, the customer is awaiting blood test results to make sure she’s not caught anything from her contaminated drink.
And what did Costa do about all this? Well, they gave her a new brew for a start and then the area manager sent her a letter apologising about the whole incident. However, the apology letter was written in Comic Sans, which is like kicking someone repeatedly while they’re down, if you ask us.
She’s made an official complaint to Costa HQ, but as yet, she’s not heard anything.
She said: “I drove off and took two sips of my latte and it tasted like iron. I realised something was wrong, but did not know what at the time. Then I saw blood on the inside of the lid and realised there was blood in the coffee. I was filled with horror when I realised what I had just drunk. I drove back and asked to see the manager.”
“The person who served me was mortified. But I should have been given a completely new coffee and not just a new lid. I was given a new latte in the end but I had to report it – it was too serious to ignore.”
Hughes has vowed to never again visit a Costa, after all this malarkey: “Not once have they contacted me. They have hidden behind the brand. That is terrible. I have had the worry of the blood tests. I don’t think I will ever go to Costa again. I will support my local coffee shops.”
A Costa Coffee spokesman said: “Our area manager has spoken to Ms Hughes and apologised for the distress this obviously caused her. This was an isolated incident and does not reflect our high standards of safety and hygiene.”
Feel free to make your own ‘grounds for complaint’ or something about ‘the daily grind’ here.
Morrisons are again cutting their prices in a bid to fend off the challenge from Lidl and Aldi. They’ve dropped the price of eggs, butter, milk, bread, coffee, pasta, sugar and juice by as much as 56%.
The thing is – will anyone actually care about this? The fact is, for many, Morrisons is neither here nor there. It’s a little dowdy and dull; not functional and straight-forward like cheaper supermarkets and not fancy enough like more upmarket shops.
So, cutting the price on 130 own-brand and branded basics might not change consumer opinion. Morrisons seem adrift on the high street, with no-one looking at them for quality or savings.
That said, these price cuts are here for the long term, as Morrisons are keen to point out that this is not a short promotion to get people back through their doors. Marketing director Nick Collard adds: “The price cuts we have now made across products that customers buy week in, week out, are making a real difference to the cost of the weekly family shop.”
Across their products, the savings amount to 22% off, with the biggest saving coming with their own brand egg and spinach taglietelle. Is that enough to entice you into their aisles?
We’ll have to see, but Morrisons look like they need to do something pretty drastic if they want to be relevant – and no, we’re not talking about stadium rock veg stands.
Who is happiest on the trains of the UK? Well, Which!!! have been looking into it and it turns out that the people of the South East of England are the most unhappy passengers, while those in the North are the happiest.
Does that mean Northerners are less likely to moan, or is the service in the South East considerably worse?
The Which!!! survey looking at national rail services discovered that the four worst-performing trains could be found in the South East of England. Those that fared badly were TGN/FCC (with a satisfaction score of 43%), Southeastern (44%), Southern (46%) and Abellio Greater Anglia (46%).
Meanwhile, passenger satisfaction was 69% on First Hull Trains, 64% at Merseyrail and Grand Central,who operates the East Coast Main Line between Sunderland and London King’s Cross, came out on top with 76% satisfaction.
Martin Abrams from the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “The Which!!! survey paints a bleak picture of expensive fares, frequent delays, overcrowded, dirty trains and poor communication from train companies to passengers. It is very notable that some of the busiest train routes around London and the South East are also regarded as offering the worst value for money. It’s also telling that those franchises which are managed locally rather than from Whitehall tend to offer a better service.”
Some Southern people will probably try and sidestep all this by painting a picture of the North where people don’t complain about trains because they’re better than the houses they live in, complete with outside toilets and tin baths in front of the fire and all that. Northerners meanwhile, will be returning the hostilities by saying that Southerners are soft and should quit their whining. Scottish and Welsh people, meanwhile, will reserve their hatred for the whole country and, as usual, everyone will ignore Northern Ireland.
One thing unites the whole of the United Kingdom though; trains – they’re going to boil your blood with annoyance at some point or other.
Apparently, a ‘third party error’ was responsible and sadly, even though a load of people snapped up the cut-price tickets, United said they would not be honouring the purchases. The flights would normally cost around £4,000.
Ever gracious, United Airlines released a statement accusing customers of trying to “take advantage of the situation”.
“United is voiding the bookings of several thousand individuals who were attempting to take advantage of an error a third-party software provider made when it applied an incorrect currency exchange rate, despite United having properly filed its fares,” they said.
“Most of these bookings were for travel originating in the United Kingdom, and the level of bookings made with Danish Kroner as the local currency was significantly higher than normal during the limited period that customers made these bookings.”
The glitch allowed users to book a round-trip flight between Heathrow and Newark Liberty International airport for 491 Danish kroner if, on United’s site, they changed their host country to Denmark.
People who got in while the glitch was still live, were able to buy cheap tickets to any US destination from Heathrow, as long as they opted for first class or business class.
Imagine the good publicity if United Airlines honoured the flights! Still, they’re probably still butt hurt from the time their Twitter account got hacked with all manner of risque messages.