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How do I cheat thee? Let me count the ways…

13 February 2014

Twice yesterday I was nearly cheated out of a sum so trivial that most people wouldn’t notice. One involved a multi-item discount at a supermarket unrecognised by the till, only spotted by chance and reported with instant regret as the queues of angry shoppers waited behind me for the refund to be given. The other was a cheque from a utility returning the credit balance on an energy account that I closed recently, but rounded down to the nearest pound.

I’ve blogged before concerning the petty frauds about which few consumers protest because individually the loss is less than the trouble of complaining, but which, when taken from tens of thousands of customers, help restore profit margins in consumer businesses exposed to the rigours of competition. I’m not sure either of these examples even gets into this territory: the loss of a few pence would impose financial hardship on very few, and unless collected from a vast number of people would barely be perceptible in company accounts. Indeed in neither case can one be sure that these were not simple mistakes – although a clue may be found in the energy company’s previous behaviour in conducting the closure of both my electricity and gas accounts. The one with a debit balance was closed immediately, collecting the sum due by direct debit from my bank, while the cheque for the credit balance on the other account waited until I phoned up a month afterwards. (When I complained, a manager told me that they had operated entirely within Ofgem rules.) Probably the most nefarious motive one might impute to the company was the intention of making the switching process less attractive. But in the scheme of things this discomfort pales into insignificance against the excessive energy bills I have suffered from this company for many years.

And if you follow this blog you will know of many more areas where you and I have lost vastly larger sums, among them HMRC’s raid on my pension; government policies on propping up the banks at our expense; and quantitative easing to patch over the cracks. Each of these has cost me perhaps 100,000 to 1,000,000 times as much as the error at the supermarket till.

So before you get as restless as the shoppers behind me (I searched in vain for a Bateman cartoon to embed in this post), let me get to the point. Our responses to these assaults often lack any sense of proportion. I was certainly angrier when I understood QE than when I was short-changed, but not a million times angrier. Nor is there a neat logarithmic scale of assault sensitivity. It helps to have a concrete object like a chocolate bar or two in your hand to focus outrage, rather than a government in the bush carrying out its raid covertly, anonymously and abstractly. And a sense that protest might actually effect a refund does perhaps encourage more energy to be dissipated on these trivial consumer battles than on the ones that matter, where we probably feel helpless.

The net effect of these unmodulated responses is complaint fatigue. It’s partly why this country has seen remarkably little civil unrest despite the huge and widening inequalities in wealth distribution.

So what lesson should we draw? Some readers will conclude that protest is never worth the effort (and we should temper our indignation with consideration for the queue behind us), while others will find evidence of a cancer of dishonesty which must be excised wherever it is found.

Update – 28 February 2014

I asked Ofgem to look into this and confirm whether the supplier had broken any rules. Their response was merely to send me links to the 371 page Standard conditions. I replied asking them to confirm whether a specific breach of one particular condition had occurred, but await a response. However I did hear the end of a piece on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning suggesting that some action is being taken.

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