Estate agent switches household’s energy supply without telling tenant
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
A landlord has slammed an estate agent for "underhand" tactics after it changed his tenant's energy supplier without telling her.
Richard Woolf, 57, began renting out properties for the first time three decades ago — and said it had always gone smoothly.
But when he instructed estate agent William H Brown to carry out "basic letting checks” this year for the home he rents on Norfolk Road in Ipswich, he found an "uncomfortable clause" buried deep in the contract.
This stated that Sequence UK Limited, owned by the Connells Group and trading as William H Brown, "may pass" his tenant's personal details to OVO Energy (also trading as SSE) so electricity and gas could be provided by them, and Sequence UK could administer the tenant’s account on their behalf.
According to The Property Ombudsman (TPO) this cannot happen without the landlord’s consent — and should always involve an “opt in” rather than “opt out” approach.
Since Mr Woolf was managing his own property, he felt the agent had no right to meddle with his tenant's energy supply at a time when the industry was in crisis and prices were unstable.
“I told them we were on EON and we wanted to stay with EON”, he said. “So many companies are going bust right now it would be madness to switch.”
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Mr Woolf, from Felixstowe, then claims he was “adamantly” reassured by a William H Brown employee the clause was not applicable as the estate agent was not managing his property and it was occupied by a tenant.
But nearly four months after the tenant moved in, on October 10, she was horrified to receive gas and electric bills for more than £150 from SSE through her letterbox.
Mr Woolf later found out that someone working within the Connells Group, had switched his tenant’s supplier without informing either him or his tenant.
He immediately lodged a complaint, and demanded the letting agent inform SSE there had been a mistake.
But it was not until December 6, two months after Mr Woolf raised the complaint, that the estate agent finally told SSE the transfer was erroneous and the tenant should be switched back to EON.
The tenant did not wish to be named, but said: “The whole thing has been so stressful.”
A spokeswoman for William H Brown said the transfer of utilities had been an “administrative error”, where the landlord’s request not to have the energy supplier transferred wasn’t acted upon.
She said: “We have now confirmed to Mr Woolf that SSE is liaising with the original supplier to reverse the switch.
“In the meantime, SSE has agreed not to chase either landlord or tenant for the charges.
“If the transfer cannot be reversed, we will engage with Mr Woolf and his tenant to ascertain what, if any loss, they have sustained.
“Of note, tenants are under no obligation to retain SSE as a supplier and can switch at any stage.”
But things weren't that simple on this occasion. When the bill first arrived through the tenant’s door it was addressed to “Sequence Connells” - the trading name of Sequence UK Limited and the Connells Group - and the account was in that name rather than the tenant’s.
SSE said this was because Sequence Connells is an “SSE Super User” which manages properties when vacant.
They explained: “This means when a property is in a void period between tenants they switch suppliers back to SSE.
“During a void period, accounts are placed in the name of Sequence Connells.
“As we have a contract with Sequence Connells, the [tenant’s] request to reverse the transfer was rejected.”
But the SSE spokeswoman continued: “Now the account has been moved into the tenant’s name, an erroneous transfer can be requested. If this goes ahead the supplies will return to EON as if they never left, and SSE would not bill anyone for the period on supply with us.”
This is the stage the tenant and landlord currently find themselves in. Both are appalled that even now the switch back cannot be guaranteed.
William H Brown also offered Mr Woolf £150 compensation for “service failings” which he rejected as “totally unacceptable”.
It is not the first time an estate agent has come under fire for switching a utility provider in error or without the landlord’s knowledge.
Property Industry Eye first reported in 2015 that Countrywide estate agents, which was taken over by the Connells Group in March this year, was passing tenants’ personal data to Spark Energy (now part of OVO Energy) in return for an undisclosed payment.
According to the former head of The Property Ombudsman (TPO), Katrine Sporle, it doesn’t matter whether agents are managing a property or not - they should not be switching a property’s energy supply without the landlord’s consent.
She said if this continues to happen, TPO Codes of Practice will be updated to ban the practice and estate agents need to be transparent about any commission they get from the energy companies.
But Mr Woolf said: “It’s all very underhand. Nobody in William H Brown mentioned anything to us about the energy being switched until my partner found it buried under clause 9.13 in the middle of the contract, and they definitely, 100pc didn’t mention anything whatsoever about commission.”
When asked how much commission Sequence Connells receives as part of the arrangement with SSE, the spokeswoman said: "Our partnership with SSE is commercially sensitive but ensures that landlords and tenants receive the best service and seamless transfer of utilities."
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