Impartiality in the heating oil domestic market can be as slippery to grasp as the heating oil itself. Last time you visited a heating oil website that offered oil quotes, did you know which company was actually quoting you? And when you last read a shining customer review, did it seem too good to be true?
Unfortunately for the hard done by consumer, some websites have been less than honest about who they really belong to. Supposedly independent price comparisons have been promised, only for the system to supply prices from a single supplier. And finally, one supplier actually fabricated heating oil commendations of service.
In a press release on 9 September 2011, the Office of Fair Trading stated that it had secured undertakings under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs) from WCF Fuels Limited and Boiler Juice Limited. It took this action in response to public feedback in its off-grid market survey in May 2011. Reported by the BBC in a news item entitled OFT criticises heating oil websites, the OFT's Clive Maxwell said:
Our investigation has aimed to ensure that any relationships between businesses supplying heating oil and websites are transparent and that the number of prices that have been compared by the website is stated prominently.
It is important that people can genuinely shop around and make informed decisions about which suppliers to use. The changes that we have secured mean that people buying domestic heating oil will be better able to compare deals on offer.
The consumer campaigning group Consumer Focus welcomed the OFT action. Adam Scorer, Director of External Affairs, stated:
This is a welcome step by the Office of Fair Trading in a market where consumers believe they have been losing out. Over a million households use heating oil and last winterís huge price spikes left many struggling to afford massive bills. With heating oil customers usually facing much higher heating bills than gas customers it is important that they are able to shop around easily to find the best deal around.
We would urge anyone worried about the cost of heating oil to buy before winter kicks in to avoid paying peak prices. People can also cut the price they pay by getting a discount through buying with a group of neighbours, getting several quotes to find the best price and finding out about grants and schemes which could make their homes more energy efficient.
There are several lessons that us consumers can learn from this sorry behaviour:
Unfortunately it can be very hard to avoid these sorts of sites when doing searches online for cheaper heating oil. For example, GB Oils (Boilerjuice owner) has been 'promoting' the boilerjuice website by getting rubbish pages written on random websites, with these pages linking to boilerjuice; this is the 'spam' version of search engine optimisation (SEO) and unfortunately does work for them. It would come as no surprise to learn that other heating oil websites (comparison or otherwise) are doing the same.
Be especially wary of any company owned/operated by the DCC Group (aka GB Oils). It owns over 40 different trading names. Around December 2009 it bought oil supplier OJ Williams and immediately cranked up prices to customers by around 15p/L. It was found guilty under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and "admitted failing to provide information on the true price of heating oil, causing consumers to make transactional decisions they would otherwise not have made". Read the full report in the South Wales Guardian: Heating oil firm fined £51,000.