Banks rake in £3.5bn a year charging us for unauthorised borrowing, bounced payments and the like. Some people have not taken this lying down: in recent years, consumers have managed to reclaim around £1bn of these charges, successfully arguing that they are unfair. But millions of us still remain out of pocket. An Office of Fair Trading report last week concluded that bank charges lacked transparency and were confusing for customers.
A battle over the legitimacy of the charges is now raging in the High Court, but that has not stopped so-called charge-recovery companies from springing up fast. In the style of "no win, no fee" lawyers, they will pursue claims for you in exchange for a cut of the cash recovered – usually between 20 and 25 per cent, plus VAT.
Typical of such firms is Boomerang Bank Charges. It will take on your bank on your behalf for a 20 per cent cut, on a no-win-no-fee basis.
"We take the worry away from the time-consuming process of getting your money back from the banks," says Phillip Tomkinson, Boomerang's director.
To get the ball rolling, a client signs an "instruction to act" document and a letter of authority, allowing the company to view their accounts and tot up any charges made in the past six years, along with compound interest. "We'll write to the bank on your behalf," says Mr Tomkinson. "Banks often offer a proportion of the amount claimed back at first, but we advise clients to hold out for the full amount plus interest. We'll never accept an offer unless it is accepted by the client."
But as Mr Tomkinson himself admits, companies like his only do what consumers can do themselves for free. "There is nothing to stop you pursuing your claim yourself," he says, "but the process can be very time-consuming."
A charge-recovery company will usually reserve the right not to pursue a claim, meaning it could decide the amount you are due is not worth its trouble. Nor can it make any guarantee that a settlement will be reached.
But regardless of the deal on offer, you probably won't get your money back any time soon because of the continuing legal battle over charges. Earlier this year, eight banks and the Office of Fair Trading brought a test case to the High Court to get a decision on whether the laws designed to protect consumers could be applied to bank charges. The High Court ruled in favour of the customer – a decision that the banks are challenging.
While this legal wrangling drags on, the Financial Services Authority (FSA), which regulates the industry, has put a freeze on claims. As a result, your bank is very likely to refuse to return your money at present. Officially, the FSA moratorium expires on 27 July but a spokesman tells The Independent on Sunday it will continue until the case concludes.
"There's no point doing anything right now," says David Kuo at the advice website Fool.co.uk. "People should just wait. But even [when the freeze is lifted] you should not waste your money by going to these claim recovery companies. They are taking money that belongs to you. They don't do anything you can't do yourself for free."
But if you don't have the time to pursue a claim and are convinced of the value of these services, make sure you protect yourself from dodgy dealers. Every claims company operating in the UK should be authorised under the Ministry of Justice's Claims Management Regulation scheme. Some set-ups may also be attached to solicitors' firms and as such will be overseen by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Using a regulated firm will give you access to a complaints procedure if things go wrong.Reuse content