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Complaints by bank customers continue to soar: Vivien Goldsmith reports on the growing number of banking grievances and looks at individual cases

COMPLAINTS against banks soared again this year to just over 10,000. The Banking Ombudsman, Laurence Shurman, reported that the 60 per cent increase followed a 62 per cent rise last year.

More than a third (37 per cent) of the complaints handled by the Ombudsman were resolved in the complainant's favour.

Charges and interest headed the list of complaints, but many of these were held to be outside the scope of the Ombudsman. Of the cases investigated, cash machines and cheque guarantee cards topped the list of grievances.

The code of banking practice introduced at the beginning of this year, which limits customers' liability in cases of stolen cash cards to pounds 50, should help to alleviate some of the complaints.

Mr Shurman does not believe in 'phantom' withdrawals from cash machines. 'What we have found is evidence of fraud - usually someone who is known to the complainant. But we have to be alert because fraud has struck from other sources. The way forward has to be to combat fraud.'

He suggested the banks could do more to combat the losses of about pounds 166m last year from plastic card fraud. He would like customers to be able to choose their personal identification number (PIN) so that there would be less need to write it down.

He also proposed the introduction of photographs on cards, videos installed at cash machines, biometric identification which makes a physical check on fingerprints, and the use of the PIN in shop transactions.

Of the 772 completed investigations, compensation was paid ranging from pounds 100 to pounds 10,000.

Mr Shurman was sometimes willing to award compensation for 'real botheration, distress, anxiety or embarrassment'. He said that customers choose a bank because they believe it will deliver an efficient, trouble-free service, and if the bank fails to keep up standards then they should be entitled to fair compensation.

But only in rare cases was he willing to award complainants compensation for their own time spent pursuing a complaint. If a customer had to take time off work to sort out a problem and lost money, then it was reasonable to expect compensation. But time spent at home writing letters would rarely be counted when a compensation payment was made. When customers' own time was valued it was costed at between pounds 5 and pounds 10 an hour.

General interest rate policies were a matter for individual banks, so these complaints were not pursued by the Ombudsman. As long as the bank levied charges in line with its printed tariff there was little scope for a complaint.

But Mr Shurman said there was 'a certain lack of logic' in some bank actions - for instance dishonouring a small item of, say, pounds 20, because of insufficient funds, and then charging the customer pounds 25 for the privilege. 'Computerised fee-billing which gives rise to situations of this type understandably does not endear banks to their customers,' he said.