Will The Coalition do Anything to Protect Small Businesses From Big Business Predators?

I am at heart a Conservative, always have been and maybe always will be, and some of the noises I have heard from the new coalition sound quite encouraging. However, (although I may have missed it) I have not heard much about what they plan to do to defend one man (self-employed or sub-contractors) from the large predative companies that we see behaving like fraudsters. Here is a cautionary tale which comes from my own experience in very recent times, up to and including today.

I was bamboozled into signing a contract to advertise my music teaching business with BT Customerstreet after having been assured by the caller that they were nothing to do with BT as we know them. Today I have found that this is untrue, BT as we know them is an umbrella company under which BT Customerstreet function (tax-avoidance?). Had I known there was any connection I would not have signed up to what has proved to have been an unmitigated disaster.

They promised to produce a website to advertise my services for which I paid approximately £34.00 per month by direct debit. After they set up the site, complete with spelling mistakes, I received many calls from fraudsters trying to sell me further advertising, usually calling themselves Online Business Directory. Some of them claimed I already had an account with them and it was due for renewal. I had no records of any such arrangements. When I called the real Online Business Directory they had no record of my having an account with them and informed me that there were at least 200 organizations pretending to be them! Quite a large police file exists on this matter, apparently.

I was subsequently (last year) asked to consider having a bigger and better website for which I was assured BT would not ‘sign me off’ until I was 100% happy with the results. I was told someone would liaise with me regularly to update and enhance this site and that it was easily editable by myself. I found it impossible to edit myself and called about 3 times for features to be added, including widgets. Each time I was informed that these requests were not possible to implement. I continued to have ‘traffic‘, sometimes up to a dozen calls a day, trying to sell me advertising and renew ‘existing‘ accounts, all of which were bogus. I probably gained one genuine customer during the life of the website.

I was contacted earlier this year, in February by a BT Customer Street employee who asked if I was pleased with all the hits I was getting. I explained to him exactly why I was not happy with the service and after a 10 minute discussion he said, ‘but you are generally happy with the results, aren’t you?’ He had obviously not listened to a word I had said. As a result of insult being added to injury, I emailed BT and requested that the website be shut down with immediate effect; this took them a while to implement, probably a few weeks!

I received no response to my email of 26th. February although I was told today that they sent emails to my wife’s email box. These were NOT received by us. I then received a call from someone at BT and I aired my grievances about their lack of service and the extensive damage caused to my business through time wasted following through bogus enquiries and being diverted from my work. I was informed that I would receive no compensation and I then informed him that I would therefore submit my invoice in due course to cover the costs of my time, correspondence, phone calls and trying to seek help. He said ‘that is your prerogative, I won’t be dealing with that). I subsequently submitted an invoice for just over £1000 which is very low considering the damage that has been caused to my business by this website and negligence by BT. I have even had to add services to my landline to block anonymous and withheld numbers, for which I have not charged on my invoice.

An invoice for £35.19 has subsequently been received from BT Customerstreet and because I haven’t paid it, (I am unable to do so because I have had £1200 defrauded from my bank and we had a car break in last week in which my wife’s cards were stolen). Our cards were obviously immediately cancelled.

Today I received a letter from Black’s Collections (a debt collector) demanding that BT’s invoice for £35.19 be paid in 5 days. My new cards (cancelled due to the fraud on my account) won’t arrive for another 7-10 working days. According to the contact at Black’s Collections who I phoned to inform him about my situation, BT have not yet received (or denied knowledge of having received my invoice). He indicated that he didn’t know where I stood legally submitting this invoice and that from his experience they are unlikely to pay it! What?, my time costs money as well as theirs and as a businessman I’m entitled to submit invoices like anyone with a business. I have assured Mr. Woodacre that I will not pay my invoice until they pay mine!

I sent a copy of my invoice to BT to Black’s Collections and he assured me that someone from BT would contact me by 13.30 today. I have still received no reply from BT and it is now 20.23! I received a further email from the same gentleman at Black’s Collections saying that BT will contact me when they have investigated further.

I hope this cautionary tale will stop others from planning to take on a contract with BT Customerstreet and advise those involved with them already to call them to account and watch them like hawks!

Meanwhile, I hope the new coalition do more to actually encourage people to work for themselves and start small businesses which grow (but not too big for their boots!).

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