Money News: 'One-stop shop' for complaints about services

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The Independent Online

Five consumer watchdogs, covering sectors from post to gas and electricity, are to be merged into one if a government plan gets the go-ahead.

In a move to simplify customer protection, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) wants to unite the National Consumer Council (NCC), Energy- watch, Postwatch, the Financial Services Consumer Panel and the Ofcom Consumer Panel.

Called Consumer Voice, the new body would be a focal point for complaints, said Gerry Sutcliffe (pictured), minister for consumer affairs. "At the moment, before anyone can get advice or assistance, [people] need to find out which body to go to. Bringing [them] together would provide a clearer framework."

Two of the bodies proposed for the merger, Postwatch and Energywatch, came under fire last year when the Public Accounts Committee said they had failed to stem the tide of complaints about services.

The DTI has launched a consultation paper on the subject that also includes proposals to extend its Consumer Direct online and phone advice service, and to create new ombudsman schemes to resolve complaints across the utility sector.

The NCC welcomed the announcement. "A one-stop consumer champion would make it much clearer who is fighting the consumer corner," said acting chairman Bob Chilton.

Circular letters: 'Clairvoyant' scam spooked

A Swiss "clairvoyant" who sent threatening letters to Britons predicting bad luck, imminent danger and severe abuse for those who failed to respond with cash has been stopped by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

The circular letters, from a "clairvoyant-medium" and "Grand Master of Occultism" called "Morgan T", were sent to a large number of people, said the OFT.

Each was personalised to make the threat convincing and recipients were offered protection from an unknown "silent threat" in return for a product costing £17.

The letters also implied that consumers ordering the product could then claim a £7,000 prize - even though they were only entered into a prize draw.

After receiving more than 30 complaints, the OFT's Scambusters team wrote to ETLA - the Swiss company behind the missive - to express its concerns over the threatening and misleading content of the letters.

The firm assured the OFT it had stopped sending the letters to UK addresses and would not do so again.

"This letter was designed to take money from vulnerable consumers by distressing, frightening and misleading them," said John Fingleton, the OFT's chief executive.

Since the start of last year, the OFT has received 166 complaints about so- called "clairvoyant" letters. It advises anybody who receives one not to be intimidated into sending money - and to call Consumer Direct for advice on 0845 404 0506.

Charity: Bono's credit card for Africa

A credit card that pays a percentage of your spending to fund anti-Aids programmes in Africa has been launched by rock star activist Bono.

The Red card, set up with American Express, was announced at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week.

Other companies have launched Red-themed products, including Gap and Emporio Armani, and all have made a commitment to the Global Fund, a public-private body that channels money into combating Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

Amex estimates there are 1.5 million "conscience consumers" willing to use the "power of their pocket" to effect social change.

The card, available from 1 March, will donate 1 per cent of any spending up to £5,000 to the Global Fund, rising to 1.25 per cent above £5,000.

Amex will also donate another £5 on behalf of consumers who use the card in the first month.

A spokeswoman for Amex concedes the card isn't the cheapest on the market. It has an annual percentage rate of 12.9 per cent and a balance transfer offer at 5.9 per cent for six months.

"Amex Red gives more than most charity cards, which donate only 0.25 per cent of spending," said Martin Lewis at financial website Money- savingexpert.com." However, users must watch out for repayments that pay down any cheaper balance transfer debt first.

Financial inclusion: Banks berated on basic accounts

Banks have come under fire for making it difficult for vulnerable customers to open basic bank accounts.

The broadside was launched by Citizens Advice (CA) in front of MPs on the Treasury Select Committee, as part of an investigation into whether banks are failing low-income customers.

While the Banking Code stipulates that institutions must allow all consumers to open a basic current account, said CA, many put obstacles in the way. These include insisting on certain forms of ID, such as passports, that people may not have, or failing to provide information. The accounts are vital for benefit payments and state pensions.

"One client was told basic accounts were only for the 'lowest of the low'," said a CA spokeswoman.

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