Money grouse: Talking to thin air with the Woolwich

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DAVID BURFIELD has been conducting what he thought was a one-sided correspondence with the Woolwich Building Society for three months. Until a few days ago, he says, it was like 'posting letters into thin air'.

Dr Burfield had two accounts in joint names with his brother and sister with the old Town & Country Building Society. Last year Town & Country was taken over by the Woolwich. Town & Country's 290,000 savers brought the total number of savers with the Woolwich up to about 4 million.

As a non-taxpayer, Dr Burfield was eligible to claim back the tax paid on his portion of the accounts, and last November he wrote to his local branch asking it for S352 certificates, which would provide the necessary details for the Inland Revenue.

It was only after he had written three letters and made two telephone calls that he got a reply - nearly a month after his original letter. Five letters and several phone calls later he still did not have his certificates. He was writing letters in the style of a man marooned on a desert island: 'PLEASE HELP . . . PLEASE, PLEASE if you wish me to remain a customer of the Woolwich. . .'

By mid-February he still did not have what he requested and reluctantly decided to try to solve the problem through publicity. It was only when the Independent contacted the society that the history of mistakes and misunderstandings was finally exposed.

The local branch had sent his letters on to head office for it to issue a tax certificate. No acknowledgement letters were sent to Dr Burfield. Head office had sent out two certificates - but it had sent them to his sister.

The Woolwich had not sent a covering letter when it posted the certificates to her, and she had filed them away in a drawer.

When Dr Burfield discovered that she had the certificates, he also found out that his name was not on one of them. It was not therefore likely to persuade the Inland Revenue that he should receive a tax refund. The society eventually went through its records and found that Dr Burfield's name should have been included.

The Woolwich has now apologised to Dr Burfield for not sending him acknowledgements, for dropping his name off its records and for not writing to him at his own address. 'He's not got the service he should have had,' a spokesman said.

Dr Burfield believes that the society's systems are incapable of dealing with anything bar the most mundane and straightforward transactions. 'The local managers are helpless to do anything,' he said. 'People are becoming so oriented around a computer that they can't sort things out themselves.'

Write to Money Grouse, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. Please do not send SAEs or original documents as we cannot guarantee to deal with every letter personally.

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