A show of strength

18th April 2008 at 01:00
Taking on big businesses isn't as difficult as you might imagine. If you have a case, contact the professionals and collect what you deserve. Alison Brace reports

No one likes to feel they have been cheated out of hard-earned cash. What starts as a niggle about an endowment policy or private pension can turn into full-blown aggravation when you suspect the product you were sold is failing to deliver.

Facing the might of the finance houses can be daunting enough to send the doughtiest of campaigners fleeing for the hills, but challenging your bank or building society is surprisingly straightforward - thanks to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). And teachers are some of its most regular customers.

Latest figures show that almost a fifth of complaints to the FOS come from teachers or the wider education sector - a disproportionately high figure.

The FOS, set up by Parliament in 2001, helps consumers settle unresolved disputes with not only their bank or building society but also insurance companies, investment firms or financial advisers.

It is independent like a court of law and has the same power as a judge, but you don't have to appear in court. Most of the mediation is informal, mainly done over the telephone. This, it would appear, is the attraction for teachers.

"By definition teachers might not be financial whizzkids, but they are eloquent enough to say they want to complain," says David Cresswell, FOS spokesman.

And that, it seems, they certainly do. Teacher Mrs D (complainants cannot be named as a condition of the mediation service) turned to the FOS after she was unable to use her bank card on a trip to Belize shortly after her retirement.

Her bank said it stopped her card because some of the shops she had used were identified as "suspect". It would reactivate her card only if someone in the UK came into a branch in person. It was a Bank Holiday Weekend, so Mrs D's daughter could do nothing for three days.

Although the FOS concluded that the bank had acted reasonably in putting a stop on the card, it said the bank should have sorted out the situation quickly, given their customer was relying on the card abroad. The FOS ordered the bank to pay Mrs D pound;400 compensation.

Of the 100,000 complaints dealt with every year, 40,000 are settled in favour of the consumer, with the average compensation pay-out between pound;6,000 and pound;7,000.

Before you rush off to download a complaint form from the FOS's website (at www.financial-ombudsman.org.uk), make sure there are proper grounds for your claim for compensation. Otherwise, you could end up with a lot of hassle and little compensation, like Mr B.

After taking early retirement due to stress, Mr B demanded pound;20,000 compensation from a pension company. He claimed that the company's representative had been negligent in not recommending critical illness cover that would pay a lump sum if he had to retire early.

The company was not prepared to pay and Mr B took his case to the FOS. Mr B said that he thought it self-evident that, since he was a teacher, he was more likely to retire early through ill health.

The FOS disputed this, but upheld that the policy had been mis-sold and the pension company agreed to pay Mr B an annuity equal to that which he would have obtained if he had paid into his employer's additional voluntary contribution (AVC) scheme instead of the private pension. It also agreed to pay him pound;500 for distress and inconvenience.

The golden rule before even beginning to think about contacting the FOS is to allow the financial company to look into the complaint. It may be a simple misunderstanding that can be put right quickly. Or ask the FOS for initial advice on 0845 080 1800. It is pleased that so many teachers contact the office but wants to send out the message that it is there to the younger generation too.

"Teachers are in a position to cascade information to their pupils," says David. An educational resource pack for 13 to 17-year-olds has been launched that aims to help raise teenagers' general awareness of their consumer rights.

The FOS feels that pupils often turn to teachers when they want information about a mobile phone contract or how store cards work. If young people are armed with the money skills early on, they might avoid some of the mistakes their elders make - and that might just save the FOS work in the future

Where to begin

- Initially try to contact the person you originally dealt with.

- Make your complaint in writing. Write "complaint" at the top of the letter and include your policy or account number. If you phone, make a note of the date and time of your call.

- Try to stay calm and polite, however angry or upset you are.

- Keep things brief and to the point. Also keep a copy of letters between you and the business and any relevant paperwork that you believe backs up your case.

Source: Financial Ombudsman Service.

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