The French energy ombudsman has expressed concern at the upsurge in consumer complaints about energy suppliers.
In their recently published annual report for 2019, the médiateur national de l’énergie posted the highest number of disputes since its creation in 2006.
According to the ombudsman, litigation concerning energy suppliers increased by 35% in one year, a figure which the ombudsman considers only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of disputes that consumers had with energy suppliers.
If the majority of cases the disputes concerned invoicing and contract termination, but complaints of abusive or aggressive canvassing were on the increase.
Their services were requested in 1,883 disputes about canvassing, an increase of 65% in 3 years.
Canvassing by energy suppliers has increased substantially in recent years: last year 61% of households were asked to change their offer of supply of energy, while it was 56% in 2018 and 36% in 2017.
The ombudsman stated that, “The offers proposed by direct sellers are rarely the most interesting on the market.”
In many of the cases consumers found themselves with energy supply contracts that had been activated against their expressed wishes, and sometimes when they did not ask for a change.
"In the disputes that we receive there are some amazing practices," said Catherine Lefrançois-Rivière, head of the mediation department.
"For example, some direct sellers fill out the contracts in place of consumers or pose as technicians coming in to install the LINKY meter. Others claim to come control the energy bill or take advantage of the fragility of the elderly. We even saw a contract signed by a minor and another subscribed by a person on holiday."
Unfortunately, the ombudsman is not always able to satisfactorily resolve the dispute, as it is difficult to reinstate a contract a consumer had prior to canvassing, in particular if they were on a regulated tariff contract.
Some gas and electricity suppliers are more affected by the claims than others. In relation to disputes concerning abusive canvassing 37% concerned Engie and 33% Eni, followed by Total Direct Energie (12%) and Iberdrola (6%), all international private sector secondary suppliers.
Both Engie and Eni have previously been heavily sanctioned by the consumer standards officials (DGCCRF) for abusive commercial practices: Engie in 2019 for abusive canvassing (€900,000 penalty) and Eni earlier this year for non-compliance with the right of withdrawal of consumers (€315,000 penalty).
Although the ombudsman has no power to prohibit canvassing, they are able to supervise it strictly and to punish suppliers severely. They state in their report that they “will not hesitate, if necessary, to publicly denounce suppliers who do not respect the rules, including the practices of their subcontractors, behind whom they hide."