Page last updated on 17/8/2011
THE largest national oil company in the UK has been fined £51,000 for overcharging customers in Carmarthenshire and neighbouring counties for heating fuel.
Some 400 customers complained after either being charged more than they were quoted or paying more than they expected after not having been given a quote.
GB Oils, which trades under at least 44 different trading names including OJ Williams, is a division of the massive conglomerate, the DCC group.
The company pleaded guilty at Ammanford Magistrates Court yesterday (Monday) to 17 offences under section 6 of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
The company admitted that it had misled consumers by failing to provide the necessary information in relation to the true unit price of heating oil and had committed offences as the failure to provide this pricing information had caused consumers to make transactional decisions that they would otherwise not have made.
Carmarthenshire County Council brought the prosecution on behalf of complainants from Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire.
Barrister Lee Reynolds of Apex Chambers, prosecuting, told the court that the Trading Standards’ prosecution case revolved around GB Oils’ failure to give its customers who bought domestic heating oil (kerosene) from the company’s depots in St Clears and Llandysul the information they should have given them, that is the true price of the product that they would eventually be charged.
Many of the customers who complained were charged approximately 15p/litre more than they had been quoted or than they had expected to pay and said that if they had known the actual price that would be charged they would not have bought the oil from G B Oil and would have shopped around with competitors selling the same product for much lower prices at that time.
Customers in Abergwili, Llandysul, Llanelli, Llandeilo, Haverfordwest, Lampeter and other areas of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire found themselves being charged 59.95p after receiving a much lower quotation of, for example, 49p/l, or after not being given a quote at all but believing that GB Oils would charge in the same price range as its competitors. GB Oils had bought OJ Williams not long before the offences were committed between December 2009 and February 2010.
Customers had experienced difficulties in getting their complaints heard by the company and had been left unhappy with the way the matter was dealt with. Most had refused to pay the price charged.
Mr Reynolds said: “OJ Williams was a long established oil distribution company and had a good reputation throughout the communities that it served. It had a regular and loyal customer base.
“Some customers did not even ask the price of the oil because they thought they would be charged a fair and competitive price when billed.”
Mark Turner QC, for GB Oils, said the company wanted to apologise for what had taken place.
He said: “One of the problems that arose in this unhappy history related to pressure individual employees felt because of a historically unparalleled increase in demand which led to the disorganised way it was dealt with.
“This is no part of any organised scheme - it is evidence of the breakdown of the operation of those two particular depots over a relatively short period of time.”
He said measures had been put in place to stop it from happening again.
Presiding magistrate Ken Burton said: “We have been very alarmed by some of what we have heard. There is no doubt that the 17 people it relates to have been treated very very badly. Their complaints have not been dealt with appropriately and I am sure that all these things do not reflect very well on the company as it was.”
He said the company had taken action to avoid the problems happening again.
GB Oils was fined £3,000 for each of the 17 offences and was ordered to pay a victim surcharge of £15. The Bench agreed to the costs being settled directly between the local authority and defendant after being assured that the cost would not fall on the public purse.
Carmarthenshire Head of Public Protection Philip Davies said: “The council values the significance the court has placed on this crime in handing out this penalty and is pleased to note that steps have been put in place by the company to stop this happening again.
“Many districts in Carmarthenshire and other parts of the UK rely heavily on off grid energy suppliers, especially suppliers of heating fuel, and consumers should now be confident that they will be charged a realistic and fair price for their heating oil, without fear of sharp practice.
“This case typifies the expertise that Trading Standards officers have in consumer protection. It has been a substantial investigation affecting several authorities in West Wales and the success of this prosecution results from the tireless work of those officers and the council’s legal team and counsel Mr Lee Reynolds of Apex Chambers.”