We expats who own companies based in the Netherlands are registered with the Kamer van Koophandel, or KvK, basically a hybrid of the Internal Revenue Service and the Chambers of Commerce in the United States. And owning a business is (most of the time) a good thing with privileges non-business owners don’t have.
For example, you have to be registered with the KvK to shop at Sligo, sort of the Costco of the Netherlands, with discounted bulk gourmet foods, coffee, spirits and wines and other supplies for restaurants and catering companies. Floors of stuff.
So, I’m working in my home office last Augusts when a nice lady calls saying something like, “Meneer (Mr.) Boyd, since you’re registered with the KvK, you’re entitled to save money on your energy bill.” In the United States, I would have hung up on her because consumer protection laws make it easy to sign up for no-call lists, with heavy penalties for telemarketers who ignore them.
Here, phone solicitation is a thing, along with people coming to your door soliciting for charities, and honestly, we haven’t figured out how to avoid them because we’re kind of busy running a media company.
The woman, Evita Peries, may be a third-party marketer, but her email signature line shows she works for MKB. She looked at our bill (everyone apparently has access to our energy usage) and says, “Hmmm … you won’t save a lot, but it would be worth a few euros a month, don’t you think?”
In all honesty, I just wanted to get off the phone, so I agreed. My first mistake. Why? Because no one can save you significant money on energy usage.
Yet the collective states on its website:
MKB Collectieven is a large collective and can negotiate competitive rates. You save around 15% on delivery rates.
Every utility or energy brokerage uses hedging and the commodities market to do the same thing … to smooth out global price and supply fluctuations.
The second point was, they knew damn good and well that we didn’t live in a commercial property, but they did whatever it took to collect the fees.
The first month, our utility bill jumped to 260 euros per month from 185 per month. Whoa!
What I didn’t realize – and the woman never mentioned – is that she was switching our home from a residential energy account to a business energy account, which meant an instant 40 percent increase in our utility bill! Read: increase in cost, not savings.
So, my wife and co-CEO Cheryl notices the giant jump – not decrease, as the woman promised – and wants to know what gives. I tell her I switched energy providers because the woman told me it would save us money.
When another third-party marketing company representing Energiedirect calls and says they want us back, Cheryl jumps at the chance to undo what I had done and says, “Yes.”
Now, while we seem to be targets for all sorts of mayhem from Airbnb scammers to high-tech thieves, we’re not that gullible. We knew there would be a penalty for switching before a year was up. But the Energie Direct people tell Cheryl, “No problem … we’ll pay the 250 euro penalty. They can’t charge more than 250 euros in penalties.”
THE NEXT BIG MISTAKE
When we jumped ship, Total deducted 1,173 euros – 912 euros of which were penalties – directly from our bank account. Not the 250 euros Cheryl was told was the maximum Total would charge. Why? Because we had a business account, not a residential account. So even though Cheryl explained the account was now in the name of the company, she still said they could not charge more than 250 euros, and Energie Direct said they would pay that for our switching back to them. With us so far?
When we started trying to unravel all this, it required multiple calls and working through totally contradictory information. We discovered we’d been lied to and manipulated by the third-party marketers, which didn’t seem to surprise any of the Dutch people we talked to.
Cheryl calls Energiedirect and the agent agreed to release us from the contract, agreeing we’d been misled by the third-party phone solicitors. Then she called Total, who said, ‘Okay, we’ll take you back and refund the penalty.”
It was about here she figured out we’d been switched to a business account from a residential account. Yes, we work from home in our tiny village sometimes, but most of the time we work at High Tech Campus.
In the process, Cheryl talked with multiple people who promised we’d get a refund and they would restore our account as residential customers, not commercial customers.
Clearly, customer service is not a thing in the Netherlands, or at least not with the energy providers.
What made this all a scam, and not a series of mistakes, is the fee-chasing telemarketers and the energy companies knew at each step that switching us to business status was going to increase – not decrease – our monthly bill as well as the annual reconciliation.
It took four people before someone told us that Total only supplies businesses even though Cheryl had been told repeatedly we were being switched back to our original residential status. We were advised to return to Energiedirect and told Total would not assess penalties for changing (again) and we finally got a refund of the 1,173 euros from Total.
This never-ending fight for market share reminds us of the telecom wars in the United States circa 1995. We would get constant telemarketer pitches to switch services after the Baby Bells were broken up through deregulation. The difference is, consumers really could save money and there were no penalties for switching.
In the Netherlands, there’s just not the same transparency or the same protection for consumers.
But there are signs that’s changing. When we posted this on Expats in Eindhoven, Sander Tan pointed us to a post on RTLz about how the KvK is getting flack for selling entrepreneur members’ information to marketers.
From that post (translated from Dutch):
The self-employed have been complaining for years about the way in which the Chamber of Commerce handles their data and they are now being listened to.
This whole long and expensive fiasco is still not over because we haven’t gotten the final bill from Total. Stay tuned. Because this is the sort of journalism Dispatches should do more of. We just wish this stuff would stop happening to us.
Here are more Expat Essentials about the painful lessons we’ve learned: