Sunday, 29 June 2014

Straight talking money company had been bending the rules

45,000 customers of pay day lenders, Wonga, are due compensation, because in an attempt to maximise debt collections, they were sent letters purporting to be from a bona fide firm of solicitors. This was not only a real lack of customer care, but a case of “serious misconduct", according to the financial regulators. The real truth of the matter was that Wonga sent these missives from law firms that did not exist and, in some cases, they charged their customers fees for the letters they sent and added the money onto their customer’s accounts. The company whose slogan is “straight talking money”, has apologised for using such a tactic which in effect was to pressurise people into paying back their loans. They have also said that they stopped doing this over four years ago, which is fortunate for them as the Financial Conduct Authority or FCA, who have highlighted this serious misconduct, were not responsible for the regulation of the payday loan industry until 2014.

Police reconsidering whether to open up a criminal investigation

Last night yet another advert popped up featuring the digital characters of Earl and the two dear old ladies, trying to drum up interest in using the services of Wonga, to help pay for the necessities in life until payday arrives. The only interest that should be taken of this company is the whopping 365% p.a noted on the front page of their website. Directly underneath is their unreserved apology for their actions between October 2008 and November 2010, when they sent out fake letters to customers behind in their payments, in order to pile on the pressure. Having noted that on Wednesday, there seemed to be no action taken against Wonga, it was reported today that the City of London Police are considering opening up a criminal investigation into the company.

Affected consumers could be entitled to around £50 compensation

Earlier on the police had decided to allow the FCA to get on with their  investigation and indeed the FCA were keen to set up a compensation scheme for those affected by these fake solicitor letters. It did seem to be a little surprising that a business could get away with such a tactic as Wonga used, but now the police are re-considering their approach. The compensation averages out to around £50 per customer affected, but no amount of money can compensate for sleepless nights, days of worry and stress at the thought of legal prosecution. Some may say that if a person chooses to use a payday lender then they should take whatever consequences come their way and pay the price. However, they still need to be treated in a fair and equable manner, so it will be interesting to hear what the police finally decide to do.
If you are one of those consumers who have been faced with a letter from a non-existent solicitor, then get in touch and tell us your experience – we’re listening!

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Help to buy scheme may house some problems for potential home owners

Cautious signs that the economy is on the up are starting to show, there is a feel of optimism in the air that even the performance of the England football team cannot diminish. There is movement in the housing market, and even on a local basis, more and more “sold” signs have been replacing the “for sale” ones, which have been there for so long it seemed as if they had taken root. Estate agents are definitely amongst the movers not shirkers of the work force and particularly busy in the North and the Midlands where up to 13,000 home buyers have taken advantage of the governments “Help to Buy Scheme”.
MP's warn of risks to government's home loan project
This has been a scheme aimed at those who can afford to pay a mortgage but the sticking point to getting onto the housing ladder has been the deposit. If the property is a new build, and costs less than £600k, providing the buyer has 5% of the deposit, they can apply for the government loan worth 20% of the purchase price. The good news is that for the first five years, this loan is interest free so a win-win situation all around you would think. However, some doubts have been raised by the recent Public Accounts Committee report, as MP’s warn the Help to Buy scheme is creating medium and long term risks for the taxpayer. Value for money has also been brought to bear, along with the toll of the administration burden placed on the government who are managing this scheme.
Consumers could have been offered more viable schemes
The Chair of the Committee has also raised the question of whether the government looked into other viable schemes for consumers before going ahead with this one and said that, as there was the potential for more viable schemes, the government could have, in her words, carried out a “violation of Treasury guidelines.”
On the face of it this seems to be a scheme that can help get people get a foothold on the property ladder, although there was the hope that it would encourage new house-building in the South East of the country, so far over 13,000 people have managed to buy their house. Housing Minister Kris Hopkins has rejected the report because he feels it has managed to give a boost to the economy. He has pointed out that as a Labour party member, Margaret Hodge who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, is “grandstanding” and “political point-scoring.”

It seems a pity that the MP’s can’t leave any potential point-scoring to our national sports teams and current Wimbledon champion, in the next few months, and concentrate on pulling together to continue to steer this country out of its current economic downturn. If you have been one of the many who bought into the Help to Buy scheme, let us know your opinion of how it has worked for you – we’re listening!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Online shopping leaves consumers chilled out as cooling off period extended to 14 days

Finally from Friday, the final stages of the EU Consumer Rights Directive are now coming into force, (as highlighted in an earlier iRateiSlate blog at the beginning of this year). I have been watching with interest the various changes and amendments proposed to our consumer legislation and they cannot come along quick enough, particularly when it comes to online complaints and poor customer service. When shopping online, consumers now have got a 14 day cooling off period, not seven days and this includes digital goods such as films, music and books for the very first time.

Automatic subscriptions for anti-virus product can be a real headache!

I have been checking out how other online services fall under these new regulations, in particular computer anti-virus protection, because I have had a very busy few days trying to sort this out. I bought my anti-virus protection online last year and paid for one year’s subscription at £19.99. I do like to shop around so it was with some surprise that I received an email this week thanking me for my automatic registration for subscription renewal, and not to worry but sit back and the money would come out of my account at a cost of £39.99.

At the very bottom of the email there was a tiny script with a font around Aerial 4, which said I could log onto my account and cancel the subscription if I so wished. I logged on and went to the page to remove my automatic subscription only to find that no products were linked to my account. I looked at my billing account thinking I could change the billing information but again there was nothing showing, although I had a print out of the amount I paid out last year. I left feedback, and got no response, so tried again and still no response. I ended up ringing the company and was on hold for over five minutes ( I hate to think what the phone bill will be but cannot work this out as the charge rate was not given on the site nor over the phone) until an operative came on line.

To be fair to the person on the end of the telephone she was very helpful and apologised, because when she looked at my account she could see everything on there, along with the cancellation button. She then after listening to my concerns, offered me a discount price of £19.99 for a further year of service but at this point I was ready to quit. She duly cancelled my automatic subscription (which I had not signed up for in the first place) and sent me a confirmation email to that effect.
Cost of complaints calls to be reduced
All this took place on Thursday and I now await the telephone bill to see the cost of that call. The regulations that came in on Friday 13 June will be bringing an end to the cost of complaints calls in which consumers have been paying out anywhere in the region of 41 pence per minute. Retailers will still be able to charge a higher amount if you contact them regarding their products or services, but if you are making a complaints call, they are not allowed to charge high prices.

I am now going through all the online services I pay for and have been double checking the small print around automatic billing and deductions from credit/debit cards. I am also interested in hearing from you if you have had a similar experience, so please do get in touch – we’re listening!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Copycat adverts has motorists taken for a ride


Yesterday the Observer reported on yet another scam aimed at getting money from unsuspecting consumers, this time involving car tax discs. They were complaining about a company who have been running a very near identical website to the government site which deals with issuing vehicle tax discs. What was happening, before the Observer stepped in, was that customers searching on line for renewal of tax discs, got an advert that appeared at the top of the Google search engine which linked to a near identical site to the official government one. Once on the site, consumers were asked to pay for a £40 “service fee” to renew their disc.

Official government site does not charge a service fee to consumers

On the official site taxdisc.direct.gov.uk there is no such charge other than the cost of the disc itself, and now Google have taken down the copycat advert following complaints. However, the Observer did point out that up until yesterday, this unofficial site was still cropping up in URL searches when people typed in “tax disc renewal”. The sites to avoid are the ones that say taxdisc-direct.co.uk and taxdisc-directgov.org.uk Although quite frankly, for people in a hurry or not sure what they are looking for these last two would look as though you have landed on the genuine article.
The money section of the Observer did ask Google, when it flagged up this latest problem, how such copycat sites and adverts are allowed to post their details and Google said in this instance, the advert met their criteria. This meant they declared specifically the site was not in any way linked with the DVLA or affiliated with the official government sites. When the reporter checked apparently this was stated but in very tiny text at the top right hand side of the page. (He probably felt the same as Arthur Dent in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy who had to hunt down demolition plans to his home at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused loo with a “Beware of the Leopard” sign on the door.) Still Google did call back several hours later to say that the site would be removed which is a blessing for all motorists but it had taken a certain amount of legwork from a national paper to highlight this problem.

Consumers warned to be vigilant and aware of copycat adverts on line

As a regular user of search engines this is yet another red flag that has appeared on the radar when using the internet. Consumer group Which? have been saying for a long time that copycat advertisers have been getting away with misleading adverts which are costing consumer’s money for services that should be free of charge. The DVLA stated the government is working with the National Trading Standards, the Advertising Standards Authority and search engine providers in order to crack down on these people. But if they are out there advertising now, then this could be too late for many consumers.

Have you been taken in by a copycat advert? If so we want to know about it so we can raise awareness for others – let us know – we’re listening!

Monday, 2 June 2014

To coin a phrase - consumers don't splash their cash but find plastic fantastic!

The range of customer choices on offer today when paying for goods and services is attributed to the reason why consumers are not using cash as much for their transactions. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) have released results of a survey which shows that cash use by customers has fallen by 14% in the last five years. Cash only accounted for just over half the transactions carried out last year (53%) with debit cards accounting for 32%. Contactless cards and different methods of payment such as self-service tills has widened the options available to us when paying for our items and services and even the smaller payments are now being paid using a debit card instead of cash.

Some customers moving back to a form of bartering for goods and services

Whilst reading the results today of this survey on consumer habits, another reason for the lack of cash payments also came to mind due to a conversation overhead in a small catering business this morning. The window cleaner was discussing the option of bartering his services for a coffee and sandwich so both café owner and he would not be subject to as he put it “paying the tax on each other’s service”. He went on to outline the work he did for two other businesses, namely a hairdresser and sports centre, where he cleaned the windows and they provided him with a haircut and access to their facilities. This form of bartering suited him down to the ground and the café owner was quite happy to come to an arrangement that benefited both of them.

Bartering has been around since man first started acquiring a type of prehistoric currency in the form of animal skins, weapons and the like. Money served to speed up this transaction process and whilst China was the first country that used recognisable coinage, the first coins to be minted were in Lydia or what is now, Western Turkey back in 600 BC. By the time Marco Polo travelled to China in 1200 AD they were using paper currency whilst European governments didn’t issue paper money until the time of the colonial governments in Northern America, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Banking charges cost both consumer and retailer but change is on the way

The BRC survey also picked up on the “unjustifiably” high costs that banks are levying for use of cards, with credit card payments increasing by 18% since 2009. On the other hand, debit cards cost around 9 pence to process against the 41 pence it costs to process a credit card. These “interchange fees” are there to enable consumers to pay safely and quickly for their goods and services according to the UK Cards Association who administer the card payments. However the European Commission are very near to approval of a plan to cap the cost that banks charge to retailers (this will not affect transactions within member states only cross-border purchases but every little bit helps).

If you have consciously reduced the amount of cash you spend and carry around with you then let us know the reason why – we’re listening!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Scholars Holler as students rate their degree course as poor value for money

The release of the 2014 Student Experience Survey which reviewed the feedback of over 15,000 higher education students has thrown up some very pertinent results. Listening to students on the You and Yours, along with some unhappy parents, it was also interesting to hear one of the callers talking about contacting Trading Standards. Poor customer care and the term “value for money” was banded about several times as first and second year undergraduates in England are now paying £9,000 a year towards the cost of their course fees. The complaint from the mother who was speaking to the radio presenter was based on the fact that she felt she was “buying a product” from the university and so far it had failed to deliver in terms of the contact time her daughter was getting from the lecturers and tutors.

Increase in tuition fees is not matched by increased teaching time

When she asked at the university Open Day, how much contact time her daughter would receive she was told 14 hours per week, but in practice (due to staff sickness), this dropped to seven hours. Other students who called in also presented tales of tutors going off sick and not being replaced, yet still they had to stump up the full tuition fee. One girl who rang in said that she had just completed her degree before the fees went up, then her brother went to the same university, taking the same degree and they have been comparing notes but so far failed to see what her brother was getting extra for the additional £6,000 he was paying out. When asked what she would have expected, the student cited no extra core contact time had been added to the course, nor printing credits for the library, which she now got as part of her postgrad degree.

The 2014 Student Experience Survey has found that 1 in 3 English students believe they get poor or very poor value for money and a third stated that if they knew then what they know now about their course, they would have applied for a different one. Parents who are supporting their children as much as they can afford, also found it incredibly frustrating as their son and daughter were coming back and telling them about the lack of teaching time in some of the fields of study. One father felt that having compared his son’s social science degree timetable with that of an engineering student, that his son was in fact subsidising the engineering course.

Students now viewed in the same light as consumers?

The interviewer kept on asking parents what was written down in the contract they had with the university which made me smile as to the best of my knowledge my eldest certainly did not have a formal contract with contact hours, resources and the like set out in it. We went through the university prospectus, and checked the offer from UCAS, and read all the details of the course as she showed them to us, but I am fairly certain that was all the information we had at the time. However, is it time to view students as consumers? If one in three feel they are not getting value for money then perhaps it is time to review the contractual process of buying your higher education?

If you are a student or supporting a child through university then let us know what you’re thinking – we’re listening!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Allegations about mis-selling TV, phone and broadband packages blown Sky high!

This week the Guardian newspaper followed up on their report of a story alleging mis-selling of Sky Broadband packages by fraudulent door-to-door salesmen in the South of England. This has now caused Sky salesmen from other areas of the UK to come forward with further claims of poor and bad practice. One agent told the newspaper that staff failing to reach weekly sales targets were in his words "exited out" of the company whereas salespeople who had been the subject of retail complaints from harassed and misled consumers, were kept on because they were meeting or exceeding targets. It was claimed that one seller was practically screaming at a customer to talk to him because she wanted to shut the door on him and finish her evening meal.

The sky's the limit for some door to door sellers

Sales agents went to the Guardian offices this week to be interviewed regarding their claims and this surprising state of affairs. They are claiming that the pressure to reach their targets, from their managers, is so intense some are encouraged to target the elderly because they are thought to be an "easy sell". Others have claimed that some salesmen have no scruples at all in promising customers anything they want in order to get the sale.

The Head of Retail Sales at Sky has made the practice of mis-selling his number one priority, and the sales agents were sent a message from him inviting them to get in touch if they had any concerns about this alleged practice. Sales people who have tried and spoken with the Guardian, have said that the number or contact details given by Sky's Head of Retail Sales, wasn't contactable which still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

Closing the door on those who carry out mis-selling

So far it has not been disclosed what action has been taken concerning the managers who allegedly are constantly calling and texting their sales team pushing them to the brink and apparently endorsing short cuts to sales that seem to border on immoral if not unlawful practice. Neither has it been stated what will happen to those staff who have apparently been lying to consumers about download limits and broadband speeds as well as, the Guardian claims, faking customer agreements.

Sky have clamped down in the past on improper sales practices of sales people using their own credit card details to pay for low value customer deposits in order to record a sale and I have no doubt that behind the scenes they are working hard to investigate these latest alarming reports. There are consumers who are very vulnerable and the thought of an all singing all dancing television, phone and broadband package at what would seem to be a reasonable cost, is a godsend. On top of this coming from a very reputable company such as Sky, many would not hesitate to open their door, as oppose to ignoring them and pretending not to be in, as is the case when other organisations come knocking.

It is to be hoped that this worrying report is quickly acted upon and any confirmed bad practice stamped out. In the meantime the only targets that should be aimed for are the ones involving reducing consumer complaints about mis-selling. If you have been the victim of malpractice around selling, whether it is Sky or any other company, then let us know - we're listening! 





Sunday, 27 April 2014

Mind the Gap!

Recently there have been reports on the radio from consumers complaining about a company after they had bought a vehicle from them and then experienced high pressure selling to take up Gap Insurance. This is not insurance against getting trapped on the Underground or stuck inside a certain High Street clothing store, but a policy that covers the period between what you pay for a car on the day you buy it, and what it might be worth later if you have an accident or wrote it off and needed to claim on your insurance.
High pressure selling by car salesman angers consumers
For one particular buyer who had put a deposit on a second hand car, arranged for the change in registration documents and returned with a banker’s cheque for the outstanding amount, it came as a surprise at just how high pressured gap insurance selling could be. After completing the sale and then being offered gap insurance, the buyer refused, at which point the salesman became fairly insistent and when the manager was called and again the buyer refused the policy, he was told that the sale of the car could not go through. Fortunately the buyer knew his consumer rights and drove away in the car he had purchased whilst refusing to sign a waiver from the salesman because he didn’t want gap insurance. The car company staff had insisted this was a legal requirement under the Financial Services Act, a point that was refuted by Professor of Consumer Law at Plymouth University on Radio 4 You and Yours this week.
Gap Insurance could be an unnecessary additional expense for consumers
When it comes to insurance policies particularly around cars it does pay to do a little research so that you don’t get bullied into buying something that you don’t need. For instance, if you buy a car and you don’t take out a comprehensive insurance policy, only Third Party, then it is pointless getting Gap Insurance because it won’t kick in unless you have comprehensive insurance. It did set me thinking, as I am in the process of looking for a second or third hand car, what use would I have for Gap Insurance? Possibly if I was to take out a financial plan to fund my new transport and then on the way home, wrote off the vehicle, I would be stuck with paying out for a car I no longer had. On the other hand, comprehensive car policies should cover this type of incident and there is usually something included that could cover you in the financial agreements or your other motor policies.
The hard selling of these policies might be coming to the fore because for some salespeople, perhaps they come with a hefty commission, which is not a benefit to the consumer. We pay out enough as it is for cars and their related insurance premiums and road tax so don’t get stuck with something that you, in all probability, do not need.
If you have had someone trying a hard sell on Gap Insurance recently then let us know – we’re listening!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Taxing times ahead as Revenues and Customs aim to sell on personal data

Plans are currently under consideration that would allow HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) to share personal data about UK taxpayers’ finances with private companies. If this goes through then HMRC could release data to public bodies, researchers or other third party companies and “charging options” are being considered at this moment linked to release of this “anonymous” data. It does seem to be an absolute fallacy that HMRC collect revenue and information from UK taxpayers and then want to get paid for selling on this information, as if the taxpayer is a commodity to be bartered on the open market. In the light of the debacle of the NHS medical records database controversy recently, what is the guarantee of customer care, anonymity and security of information if this does go ahead?

Temporary tax that has lasted 215 years

Out of curiosity I looked into the history of taxation and income tax and was surprised to find that it had been going since 1799. It was introduced as a “temporary” tax in order to pay for the war against the French during the Napoleonic Wars.  At the time it was set at a rate of 10% on the total income of the taxpayer, this was from all sources above £60. The tax was to be collected six times a year and there were reductions on income up to £200 and at the time it raised about £6million to fund the fight against Napoleon. It is still today a temporary tax, which many people might not realise, and it expires each year on April 5th, hence this is the end of the financial year. Parliament have to reapply the tax with an annual Financial Act, and it is this Act, along with other regulations that HMRC have to abide by.

Serious risks to privacy of individual level data?

Concerns have already been voiced about this latest plan from the HMRC, who have been very clear that if this does go ahead, then anonymity is their priority. It was The Guardian newspaper who led with this story and who reported that “charging options” were being looked at by officials. This has given rise to the assumption that firms could pay out to access the data. HMRC have said that they would “only share data if it would generate clear public benefits,” but so far it would seem that the only people to benefit would be HMRC, if they will be charging for this service, and the firms that receive the data.
Would you like to see your personal financial data shared (anonymously) without your consent? Let us know at iRateiSlate – we’re listening!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Takeaways offering sham lamb could find themselves behind baas

Fast food takeaways are to face a new testing programme after it was found that nearly a third of lamb takeaways it checked, contained a different meat. The Food Standards Agency found that the takeaways, usually curries or kebabs, were wrongly described with 25 out of the 145 samples tested, found to contain beef and all in all 43 out of the 145 were not what they were supposed to be. There was no horsemeat found but chicken and turkey appeared in the so called “lamb” dishes. In London and Birmingham when Which? carried out their own testing they found an even higher proportion, around 40%, were wrongly labelled so now local authorities are being asked to carry out their own tests following through on ensuring quality customer care.

Food fraudsters play on consumer ignorance

Whilst I would find it hard to distinguish lamb from other meats in a curry due to the spiciness of the sauce surrounding it, I do have to say the revolving slab of kebab meat displayed on  some takeaway counters has often left me wondering just exactly form of animal protein it is. Food swindlers are definitely helped by consumer ignorance and food fraud is not a new form of crime. Even the Romans used to doctor their drink with leaded wine, and it wasn’t until the development of our scientific ability that we were able to highlight doctoring of food and drink on a large scale. This was noted in Victorian times, when a scientist put coffee under the microscope and discovered that genuine coffee it certainly wasn’t and if you wanted a dollop of pure mustard to have with your roast beef then London wasn’t the place to get it in the 1800's.

£5,000 fines for those who wrongly label food products

The FSA have noted that the message still isn’t getting through to takeaway owners, who have been substituting lamb for cheaper meats. If they are found to be doing this and incorrectly labelling food dishes they can be fined up to £5,000 which should certainly grab their attention. To reinforce this, local authorities will be required to take 300 samples of lamb dishes from takeaways starting next month.

Which? is also pushing for further testing of products to restore consumer confidence in meat and to follow through on the recommendations of the Elliott Review which was set up following the horsemeat scandal. Professor Elliott made 48 recommendations one of which included setting up a food crime unit to counteract food fraud. This certainly got my attention at the time and I wondered what exactly would we call these food police and then it came to me – The Frying Squad!

If you have had any doubts or suspicions about fast food you have purchased recently let us know – we’re listening!

 

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