Simon Read: Complaints are soaring, but the banks still aren't listening

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The Independent Online

Have we become a nation of moaners? News this week that the Financial Ombudsman Service is being forced to recruit an extra 1,000 staff to cope with its increasing workload of complaints, could lead some to believe that we have.

But I reckon the opposite is still the case, and we still don't complain enough about shoddy service and being sold rubbish products.

The Ombudsman is anticipating a massive rise in complaints this year. The service says it expects to answer 2.2 million consumer enquiries in 2013-14 compared with 1.3 million last year.

But that huge increase has very little to do with people moaning, as far as I can tell. Instead it's all to do with many of us being forced to take problems on to a higher authority because we've been consistently let down by our financial services firm.

My mailbag pays testament to that. In the last couple of weeks, I've heard from readers who feel they've been treated badly by a wide variety of financial firms.

For instance, Terry Barnett of Ruskington in Lincolnshire feels let down by Marks & Spencer after its finance arm launched an attractive-looking account paying 3 per cent.

"A few months later, we were notified the interest would drop to 2.75 per cent, and before we could catch breath another letter arrived to say it will drop to 2.25 per cent," he reports.

It's a common complaint. Savings institutions seem to have got into the habit of offering highish-paying accounts, then letting the interest rate slump once they have attracted customers and got their cash. They know that most people will simply take it. Terry Barnett asks a simple question: "Could you advise us what to look for without being conned by people you thought you could trust? I don't want the hassle of changing every year because banks can't be honest and upfront."

I wish I could help, Terry. But when it comes to trusting financial firms, it seems they'll always let you down. The latest to disappoint me is the Co-operative Bank.

It was fined £113,300 last week for failing to handle payment protection insurance complaints fairly. The Financial Services Authority said the mutual's actions meant that a significant number of peowple had the resolution of their valid complaints about mis-sold PPI delayed for no good reason.

But that failure seems practically nothing compared with the shocking actions of NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland which, according to the Office of Fair Trading, have been putting customers' homes at risk for debts sometimes less than £5,000.

The OFT yesterday reported that the two banks – both part of the RBS group – have been misusing charging orders.

These are a way to secure and recoup unpaid debts, but an OFT investigation found evidence that the banks were not always taking account of customers' efforts to repay debts using a debt repayment plan or other method.

Worse, many charging orders were used to secure relatively small amounts of debt, sometimes below £5,000, which left people at risk of losing their homes for a comparatively tiny debt compared with their property asset.

The OFT has demanded that the banks stop using charging orders unfairly or oppressively towards customers.

Let's hope the banks take account of that. The last thing anyone with money troubles needs is their bank getting unnecessarily heavy with them.

Twitter: @simonnread

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