Questions of Cash has won £182,000 for readers – and we're not done yet

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The Independent Online

Questions of Cash celebrates its fifth birthday with the news that we have obtained refunds and compensation totalling £182,000 for our readers.

When the column started in 2002, it was a vehicle for readers to have questions answered that helped them to understand financial products. Early letters typically asked how to complain, how to transfer money abroad cheaply, and to explain stakeholder pensions. Requests to sort out individual problems were rare.

Gradually, readers began to use the column in other ways. One issue was the Halifax and Lloyds TSB call centres. But the other common complaint of 2003 alleged the mis-sale of poorly performing endowments intended to repay mortgages. Our role was often to track down the endowment sellers – many were small firms that disappeared or had changed names and addresses. We have assisted readers to obtain thousands of pounds from sellers.

One occasion was a reader who had a £4,400 shortfall on her mortgage sold by a small financial advisory firm. It told her it was not responsible. We spoke to the adviser – who then agreed to pay up the full £4,400 on a no-responsibility-accepted basis.

Other readers – especially those sold unit-linked endowments issued by the Lincoln Financial Group – were unlucky. Many lost thousands, but the firms that sold these policies operated in the 1980s under a more lax regulatory system, and we were unable to get anything on their behalf.

We were more successful in 2003 in helping readers obtain money for claims from Independent Insurance (no relation), which went bust in 2001 and left many clients without payment of claims. One, John Lewis, found the claims handler to be slow in processing the administration. After an 18-month wait he contacted us. We pushed the claims handler to sort things out and spoke to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, which paid £6,500 as a 90 per cent settlement. Another reader won a £15,000 settlement.

In 2003, we recovered £27,000 for readers – and the column had become a recognised means for readers to obtain redress. In 2004, Questions of Cash became chiefly a means of settling grievances, because that was what readers were asking us to do. Since then, every week, we get letters complaining about named companies. Some – noticeably CarphoneWarehouse, Virgin Media and British Gas – are cited with painful repetition. But even these do sort problems out after we intervene. Sometimes the value of a settlement can be substantial– one reader was refunded £676 by Virgin Media, plus a further £100 as a goodwill gesture.

Not all companies are as helpful. Small car dealers remain a problem – often all we can suggest is taking problems up with Consumer Direct and local trading standards officers.

Readers, too, can be unreasonable. Take the person who complained about the positive balance on his credit-card account that he could not get refunded. It turned out he was owed £2. He gave it to charity.

Happily, most of our interventions are worthwhile. St Andrews, an insurer, refused to pay out on a life assurance policy, leaving a widow with an £11,000 loan to repay. The insurer argued that the deceased had been an alcoholic and caused his own death. After we intervened, the insurer accepted that the cause of death may have been unrelated and cleared the debt.

Another insurer, Lloyds TSB, rejected a series of claims made under a payment protection insurance policy, but after our intervention the bank agreed to pay £1,113.

One angry correspondent complained that he'd never been told his excess on his household insurance had risen from £1,000 to £5,000 until he claimed; we recovered the £4,000 difference. Pensions can be a problem, with readers in financial trouble owing to delays in payment commencement; we released £11,000 for one couple.

Fraud can turn into a crisis. Some readers said banks were not sensitive or quick enough in sorting out the mess fraud can leave. For one reader, we got Abbey to release almost £12,000 fraudulently taken from her account, plus £200 to compensate for the failure of one part of the bank to liaise properly with another.

Barclays has had to make two of the largest payments to readers. Its Woolwich division paid a reader £5,000 for failing to follow instructions properly on a mortgage. And Barclays Life Assurance paid £15,311 to settle an endowment issue – plus £500 for failing to deal with it previously.

The total recovered for readers is much more than the £182,000 we calculated, because often we aren't told the settlement; annoyingly, neither reader nor company will tell us the terms of the resolution we achieved.

So our message is that we are happy to take up your case, but we do expect co-operation. We may recover £20, or even £20,000, if you give us all the information we need. But to some readers – such as the man who complained repeatedly that Royal Mail delivers letters too slowly, and another still seething over his treatment by a bank 20 years ago – we have to say this; while it is important to know when and how to complain, it is also essential to learn when not to and to get on with your life.

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