HOW WE REPORTED FIRST CHOICE EPC
25 February 2017
Panel site First Choice EPC has been at the centre of a Crown Court trial this month, as panels boss Christopher Whatcott faced a Hertfordshire Trading Standards prosecution relating to three websites, but primarily to the infamous First Choice.
We have covered the trial (link below), but with issues related to the First Choice site being put before a jury it has not been possible to remind you of any of the coverage we did originally in the magazine.
But after Mr Whatcott changed some of his Not Guilty pleas earlier this month and admitted three offences of Unfair Commercial Practice, we have been able to trawl back through the archive and recall how EAM covered events at the time – and there was a good deal more to the story than was revealed in court.
The firstchoiceepc.com domain name was first registered in March 2014, and with forums lighting up like slot machines over the summer as the site got into action we ran our first story on it in September 2014 – Rogue Panels Boss ‘Back in Business’ – which noted that the well known panels boss seemed to have returned, having been absent from the industry for a couple of years after his bankruptcy.
That news story featured many of the allegations which would have been familiar to anyone who was in the courtroom at St Albans for his trial. The article quoted online criticism, especially on the Housing Energy Advisor website, where posters began adding comments on First Choice as early as June.
Customers of First Choice EPC complained of not receiving EPCs they had paid for, and of being pressured into paying ‘additional fees’ with threats of legal action. One poster on the website claimed that he had been forced to pay £105 in dubious ‘charges’, and had not even received an EPC. The word ‘scam’ was used by a number of aggrieved consumers.
We interviewed Tracey, a working mum from Buckinghamshire, who contacted us after she said she asked for a quote on the First Choice EPC website, and the firm began pursuing her for a ‘cancellation fee’, even though she says she had not made a booking.
She told us: “The company threatened to take me to court if I didn’t pay them the fee – for enquiring! – and won’t discuss it with me as they say that will incur further charges. Crazy, but really upsetting.”
There were other issues of concern to assessors, which we dealt with but which sadly weren’t raised at the trial this week. Some assessors said they were left owed money by First Choice EPC, but trying to sue will have done them little good since the address listed initially was only a Herts business centre, and the contract there ran out in July 2014.
Lacking the investigatory powers of Trading Standards, we had to connect the site to Mr Whatcott through digital connections to other sites which were known to be his, and this was strenuously denied on behalf of the site in emails signed Michael Cox, but it was made clear by the prosecution at the start of his trial that this was definitely Mr Whatcott’s website and he was in control of it at all times.
The article also pointed out the deal being offered to customers of First Choice EPC, and some of the text, seemed to be similar or identical to that offered by another infamous panel site called PayOnTheDay – see PayOnTheDay ‘Are Ripping People Off’ – which was current in 2011 and was later connected to Mr Whatcott by an independent investigation – see New Claims Against EPC Panels Boss Whatcott
Before we published the article we contacted First Choice EPC and received an email denying that any assessors were unpaid, and insisting that customers’ complaints were either not true or were fabricated, and that customers’ problems with the site were their own fault!
In the following month we featured the case of an assessor who had wisely refused to supply an EPC to First Choice EPC without payment up front, but changed his mind after he felt his accreditation body NHER was backing the panel, which responded by deliberately refusing to make the payment – see First Choice Refuse to Pay for EPC
By late October we were being deluged with emails from members of the public getting increasingly anxious as First Choice demanded cancellation fees, even if they said they hadn’t booked or had not been supplied with an EPC, and the website swamped their inboxes with increasing daily demands for ‘additional charges’ which amounted to around £450 over a couple of weeks – see Panels Demanding Hundreds of Pounds
The site was also doing its best to avoid official scrutiny by giving an address at a business centre in Spain!
Two people from the financial services sector, including a senior bank executive, were amongst the many members of the public we heard from who said they had fallen foul of the long list of additional charges in the website’s Terms.
One lady who emailed us said: “I have just received an email – at 12.40am – telling me that ‘court proceedings have now commenced’. This is because I tried to pay the booking fee but the Barclaycard paying in website was unavailable, therefore the payment was late.
“Since August they have sent over 20 emails demanding I pay the ‘outstanding booking fee’. I’ve replied and sent proof of the payment from my bank account. They are now demanding I pay £449.95!
“I can’t speak to anyone, the recorded message just says to send an email. I don’t know what to do! PLEASE HELP!”
It was very clear from the emails we were getting that people moving and seeking a mortgage for a new property they were moving to, were especially vulnerable to threats that debts would be passed to collection agencies or result in court action.
First Choice EPC were unrepentant however. They told us in an emailed statement that their ‘additional charges’ were completely justified – though they didn’t explain how – and that claims that charges were made after customers had just made an enquiry were “simply not true”.
They continued to insist that no assessors were owed money, and bizarrely they told us that in fact more than 60 assessors owed them money, though not surprisingly they didn’t offer any explanation or evidence for that!
In November Mr Whatcott was still claiming that he had nothing to do with what was clearly his website First Choice EPC – see EPC Boss Denies Panels Link – though First Choice appeared somewhat confused on the subject.
They told us in an email on 25 September: “We are in no way connected to Christopher Scott Whatcott”. But in response to an aggrieved customer they told him in an email on 11 October: “Your comments will be passed to Mr Whatcott”. Oops!
Mr Whatcott told us that our coverage was making him feel anxious and harassed, and he added: “Your publication is affecting my business. I am therefore requesting that you remove the publication from your website and stop printing further lies about me.” He subsequently told us that he had contacted the police and a solicitor, though we are still waiting to hear from them.
After we appealed to then Consumer Affairs Minister Jo Swinson (left), she told us in January 2015 that the demands being made by First Choice EPC were illegal, and that information had been passed to police and Trading Standards in Hertfordshire, who were investigating – see Probe Into Controversial Panels – which ultimately led to the trial which commenced within the past month.
Herts Trading Standards were soon doing their best to bring First Choice EPC into line with the law, but it didn’t stop the panel issuing Small Claims Court proceedings against two ‘customers’ who had refused to pay cancellation fees despite numerous threats.
Both consumers entered defences to the claims, after which First Choice ceased to pursue them, and in April admitted that cancellation fees should not have been charged in the first place – see First Choice EPC Admit Charges Were Wrong
Just a month later Mr Whatcott was once more in trouble, with a new website called Savi EPC, one of the other websites referred to at his trial, which had substituted ‘referral fees’ for ‘cancellation fees’, but otherwise was operating in very much the same sort of way as First Choice EPC – see New Panel Site Draws Complaints
Among the members of the public who contacted us was Franka, a single mum from Essex, who paid £39.95 but received no EPC. She told us: ““I feel physically sick that someone can get away with doing this to people. I will be trying to reclaim the money but that’s not the point. In good faith I believed that Saviepc was a reputable company and that I would have an assessment done. I am usually so careful. I guess that I just didn’t expect to be the victim of a scam.”
One man who had posted a complaint on a forum said he was telephoned and was on the receiving end of a long angry rant, during which he was told that unless he paid the additional fees demanded, and replaced his forum post with an apology, he would be subject to legal action.
Mr Whatcott, who admitted this was his site but still claimed he had nothing to do with First Choice EPC, insisted he knew nothing about the angry telephone call, and even told us: “In my view, any complaints received thus far are baseless and entirely without merit. I am also of the view that we are the only compliant online provider of EPCs serving the UK market.”
It emerged at Mr Whatcott’s trial that throughout this period Trading Standards were continuing to advise him on how to make his business legally compliant, despite his reluctance to accept their advice, but in July 2015 aggrieved customers complaining about Savi EPC were furious to learn that Hertfordshire Trading Standards were said to be supporting the site and saying it was legally compliant – see TS Controversy Over Panel
That was the claim being made by Mr Whatcott on the basis of a TS letter which he said gave his site a clean bill of health. Herts TS made clear, in reply to our request to them for comment, that in fact their letter didn’t say anything of the sort!
And Mr Whatcott continued to insist that no assessors were left owed money – though that wasn’t what assessors said! An aggrieved assessor posting on LinkedIn said: “They do not pay you! I have sent them endless emails, all ignored. I will be removing the EPCs from the register.” Another said: “So much for the ‘business model’ that supposedly ‘adheres to every letter of the legislation’.”
In January 2016 we were finally able to report that, thanks to Herts Trading Standards, Mr Whatcott had appeared before magistrates just before Christmas, where he denied all charges and subsequently opted for a Crown Court trial, and the charges he faced gave the first official confirmation that the First Choice EPC website, which we had connected to him despite his denials, was his website – see Panels Boss Whatcott in Court
His trial, which started at the end of last month in St Albans (left) heard that throughout the months he had been dealing with Hertfordshire Trading Standards he continued to reject their advice, and even at a formal interview, which is a potential precursor to legal action, he bizarrely persisted in telling TS officers he had every right to penalise members of the public with extortionate charges if they failed to pay fees that in most cases he had no right to charge them in the first place – see EPC Panels Trial Opens in St Albans
Presumably he opted to appear before a jury hoping that he could persuade them that he was right, but after just two days of evidence from seven out of a potential 30 prosecution witnesses, his legal team presumably disagreed, and Mr Whatcott pleaded guilty to three charges of Unfair Commercial Practice – see Panels Boss Admits Trading Offences
Sadly none of the considerable body of evidence we put together of assessors left owed money by Mr Whatcott’s panel sites played any part in his trial, but at least the damage he has been doing to the reputation of our industry is hopefully finally ended following his ten year ban on acting as a company director.