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14 May 2007

Mad as hell

A new wave of militant consumer is rising, hitting large corporations where it hurts - in the wallet

By Stephen Armstrong

Rail strikes are usually attacked for the pain they inflict on poor, hard-working commuters. This year’s rail strikes will present railway-industry spin-doctors with a knotty problem: they’re actually organised by the poor, hard-working commuters themselves. Last month’s announ cement of plans by More Trains Less Strain to co-ordinate a national fare strike caused alarm in boardrooms across the country. It heralds the rise of Militant Consumer, an unaffiliated network of activists that has started attacking companies where it hurts – in the pocket.

Somerset-based More Trains Less Strain declared its intention to withhold its money after a limited but surprisingly successful local fare strike in January. The group persuaded 2,000 passengers to travel from Bath to Bristol submitting fake tickets and passes for their entire journey. Each ticket had Fare Strike written across the bottom in glaring capitals, the company’s logo presented as Worst Great Western and the route given as Hell and Back. Passengers showing the fake tickets were waved through, with staff at Bristol Temple Meads even showing strikers out through a side gate.

Although the First Great Western spokeswoman Elaine Wilde insisted only one person had travelled with a fake ticket, the company caved in to the group’s demands instantly, borrowing carriages from other train-operating companies across Britain to ease overcrowding. “We’re now considering leading a national fare strike and we’re collecting as many consumer groups as we can,” said Peter Andrews, a founding member of the group. “It’s just a ridi culous idea to run a railway like this.”

The birth of More Trains Less Strain in December 2006 marked the end of a curious year of discontent. In the preceding 12 months, at least ten separate consumer groups began withholding or reclaiming money from utilities, banks, credit cards, incompetent councils and software providers across the UK.

“The problem is that the governments of the past 20 years have legally sanctioned poor service and aggressive disregard of customers by allowing large monopolies to grow up and then refusing to regulate their behaviour,” says Gareth Coombs at the Cambridge Strategy Centre. “You get the sense that we’re almost in a pre-poll-tax protest era – lots of people are really annoyed, looking at each other, all ready to go as soon as someone else does, but worried about acting alone. They’re working on the principle that they can’t jail everyone, but they want some-one to go first. This, of course, is how trade unions originally developed. Maybe the new generation of trade unions will be militant organisations designed to hurt the profits of firms who abuse consumers.”

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Marc Gander is at the forefront of this new wave of direct taxation. To date, he has cost the British banking industry roughly £50m, although it’s hard to be sure of the exact total. He knows for a fact (he can produce the paperwork) that he’s been responsible for £11m, although newspaper reports suggest it’s significantly more – maybe £60m and rising.

At the end of 2005, Gander, an academic lawyer, was out of work. He was struggling to make ends meet and his bank threatened to close his account in a dispute over £150, an amount that meant a lot to him. The bank’s indifference brought his resentment at the appalling service he had been receiving for years bubbling to the surface. With a computer programmer friend, he founded the Consumer Action Group in January 2006, based on his view that the bank’s charges were unlawful. “UK law has it that you can only issue penalty charges to cover cost, not to make a profit,” he says.

Groundswell of outrage

Gander posted sample letters and legal advice for those seeking to reclaim penalty charges on his website, www.consumeractiongroup.co.uk. These were picked up by other websites until the Consumer Association, Which? and various newspapers took up the cause. The CAG now has 140,000 members, 8,000 of whom have successfully won money from their banks. According to the Independent, more than two million non-members have also used CAG tactics to reclaim money. The groundswell of outrage forced the Office of Fair Trading to broaden its investigation into credit-card charges to include banks. “I expect the OFT ruling will drastically cut the charges, but I think the action group will go on,” Gander says. “It would be a shame to let all this energy and commitment dissolve.”

In July 2006, the Guildford IT consultant Andrew Morrell took a similar approach to Thames Water. He was so incensed that the company had missed its leakage targets for the sixth year in a row that he decided to withhold roughly 32 per cent of his bill – the proportion of water that leaks out of Thames’s pipes every year. “There’s a contract that I agree to pay Thames for the water, but it agrees to repair its leaks,” he explains. “It’s not fulfilling its promises, the regulator does absolutely nothing, and the company has just been sold for a vast profit.” Morrell’s website – www.thameswas ter.co.uk – offers a calculating system to work out what to remove from your bill, links to sites selling consumer-friendly meters, and tips on making it as expensive as possible for Thames Water to get heavy.

Meanwhile, over at www.bbctvlicence.com, Matt D offers extensive advice on avoiding prosecution for non-payment of the licence fee. In April, the website carried the following message: “This site has reached a small but significant milestone in that it has helped 739 people resist BBC harassment. This means that in the six and a half months this site has been running, a tidy £100,000 has been denied to the BBC. Admittedly, that is not much compared to the £18m salary paid to Jonathan Ross, but it is a start. If BBCtvLicence.com has helped you get rid of your fear of BBC intimidation, please repay by telling other people about this site.”

This year the action has spread to individual hit-and-run consumer terrorists. On chat forums such as www.penaltycharges.co.uk, campaigners swap tips for future skirmishes. Even mainstream financial websites have felt the mood of their audience change and started adding guerrilla advice. MoneySavingExpert.com, for instance, now offers a “credit-card revenge” page, with step-by-step guides for borrowing money from zero per cent credit cards and investing it in high-interest accounts.

Elsewhere, militant consumers have used more surreal protest tactics. The Complaints Choir of Birmingham (www.complaintschoir.org) encourages local people to set their complaints to music and then gather outside the offending organisations to sing their criticism – to the chorus “I want my money back”. Similar complaints groups have sprung up in Helsinki, St Petersburg and Pittsburgh. What’s curious is that all these campaigns began around the same time, and all avoid mainstream consumer organisations in favour of the kind of action that was previously the preserve of the militant left: becoming the Animal Liberation Front to the mainstream’s RSPCA, if you like. Few of these group’s organisers have any previous experience of protest. Indeed, most of them are previously respectable pillars of Middle England. These new-generation Militant Consumers find themselves sitting on broken trains, being palmed off by financial service companies and ignored by monopolistic utilities companies. In the words of Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.

According to Mark Ratcliffe, who runs the consumer research company Murmur, this tide has been rising for a long time. Until the 1990s, he argues, Brits were happy to rely on the Consumers Association, TV watchdog shows and ombudsmen to police the high street. As companies made more money and we received worse service, however, our faith in the usual watchmen declined.

“People have spent the past ten years seeing, for instance, banks profits soaring but their behaviour seeming ever more petty and vindictive,” says Ratcliffe. “Then these companies put out huggy-lovey advertising that people think is disgusting, and everyone recoils.

“I’d say the next target will be the mobile-phone companies. Everybody hates them, but they’re a necessity. We all know that if they gave us free calls and free internet for £40 a month they’d still be making £30 from us. Consumers are itching to find a way to put a rocket up their arse and as soon as someone’s found it, you watch it kick off.”

Ratcliffe and Coombs both predict a rise in Militant Consumer action. “The chance of mainstream political parties and even established pressure groups responding to people’s day-to-day experience is becoming ever more remote,” Ratcliffe argues. “If no one is listening and you have nowhere to turn, you either despair or do something about it.

“At the moment, it feels as though the British are getting ready to do the latter.”

Militant Consumers Worldwide

Bus fares in Athens rose so sharply in 2002 that transport staff refused to collect the fares.

Vincent Ferrari heard it was notoriously hard to cancel an AOL account, and recorded himself pleading to cancel for his blog. It got 700,000 hits. AOL complied and apologised.

The food giant GlaxoSmithKline was fined £80,000 when two Auckland schoolgirls proved that Ribena is not “rich in Vitamin C”.

Furious customers in Mexico City used a website called Apestan.com (theystink.com) to wage a campaign against a furniture company.

Research by Shabeeh Abbas and Jonathan Pearson

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