Friday, 22 August 2008

Too Many Snouts in the Bank Charges Trough

Some bank customers are understandably frustrated when it comes to refunds of what they regard as excessive charges. So the last thing they need is to pay needlessly to have their complaint resolved. Yet that is precisely what some customers are at risk of doing.

The Financial Ombudsman Service offers a financial services dispute resolution service that is free of charge to consumers. Thanks to some sensible increases in its remit, FOS can handle virtually all consumer financial services complaints these days, including those related to consumer credit.

True, the banks have diverted the specific issue of excessive overdraft charges to the courts, and are now dragging the whole process to the House of Lords. That means a long wait for most of the customers affected. But the Financial Ombudsman will still deal with complaints about overdraft fees for those customers in financial difficulty, and the delay doesn't affect complaints about other types of charges - like credit card default fees - which FOS is still handling.

So it's troublesome to see certain claims managers and law firms, advertising themselves as able to recover these charges for a fee, without any reference that I could see to the free service offered by the Financial Ombudsman Service. A bit rich from claims managers in particular, considering that they are responsible for 18% of claims referred to the Financial Ombudsman! Note, too, that in February 2008 there were 427 claims managers operating in the "financial products" space, with a total turnover of £68m - all additional cost and friction that the Financial Ombudsman is designed to avoid.

And watch out for the fine print. One claims manager debits its customer's credit card for all their "Service Charges" as soon as any amount of refund is obtained. Is it possible that a customer could owe more in service charges to the claims manager than the amount of the refund?

Time, you would've thought, for some joined up activity from the Ministry of Justice (which now regulates claims managers), the Office of Fair Trading (which regulates consumer credit) and the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (does what it says on the tin). These complaints should be resolved at minimum cost to the consumer. The best escalation path for any complaint should be from the bank's own complaints process to FOS. Heaven forbid the lawyers need to get involved, but we are here as a last resort. I don't see what value "claims managers" add in this sector.

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