This has been a bumper year for letters to my Ask Tony column, with thousands of you writing in with your consumer disputes.
While that’s kept me busy, it raises concerns about the way some companies are so dismissive of legitimate complaints.
Often it is not the amount of money involved, but the energy and time wasted chasing the problem.
It may be tempting to let the company pocket £20 or so just to avoid hassle — but that would mean they benefited from their poor service.
These ‘smaller’ complaints often involve the telecoms industry, which seems to have turned poor customer communications into an art form.
Busy 2017: This has been a bumper year for letters to my Ask Tony column, with thousands of you writing in with your consumer disputes
More worrying is the number of times I have had to face down debt collectors which are chasing people who don’t owe a penny and operating at the fringes of legitimacy.
One of the most troubling, published in March, concerned PRA Group of Kilmarnock asking for £133.50 to be paid on a debt of £1,966.87.
PRA agreed the debt had become statute-barred in 2012 but argued that this did not extinguish it and that it had not threatened enforcement action.
Debt specialists warn that firms sending out such letters could be attempting to get the recipient to acknowledge the debt, which would allow the firm to chase it.
On an optimistic note, regulators and lenders are finally moving to address the issue of older borrowers being denied mortgages.
One reader feared losing his home because his Santander mortgage was nearing its end. I spoke with Santander which moved him to a cheaper deal, saving more than £1,000 a year in interest and allowing him to tackle the loan.
Your letters can alert us to wider issues, as when some individuals told us they had been wrongly advised by HMRC to top up their National Insurance for the promise of a bigger state pension and were struggling to get their money back.
But proof that the taxman does have a heart came in March with the case of an 87-year-old woman with dementia who was in care and received a tax demand for £2,057. HMRC admitted mistakes calculating her pension, and wrote off not only that money but also the underpaid tax for the previous year, before correcting her tax code to make sure things went smoothly in future.
YOU HAVE YOUR SAY
Every week Money Mail receives hundreds of your letters and emails about our stories.
Here are some from our report about how Basildon Council has billed residents of an Essex estate £2,000 each to fix water pipes under their homes:
The council should pay for these repairs as they operate the pipes. This is callous, especially just before Christmas.
T.M., Skipton, N. Yorks.
It is unfair that these people have to pay for repairs. They did not choose this unusual heating system with a central boiler; the council did. This is poor management and planning.
I am fed up with being mugged by the council for ever-increasing amounts — and being threatened if I don’t pay. Councils need to be radically transformed.
Councils and local authorities have become a law unto themselves.
They issue spurious summons and liability orders and penalise millions of people who are struggling to pay.
D.W., Cleveland, N. Yorks.
I had to replace my boiler recently at a cost of £2,200. The council didn’t pay for it — I did. This is the same.
L.F., Huddersfield, W. Yorks.
Energy firm disputes cropped up with depressing regularity. My award for the daftest goes to British Gas, which insisted a bowling club treasurer photograph a smart meter to prove usage.
A spokesman said it had a disputes process that ‘hasn’t evolved at the same speed as our smart offering’. Stuck in the last century, then? Those photos triggered a £2,314 refund and a hamper.
Scottish Power wrote off 19 months of bills, worth £2,307, after putting a reader on the wrong tariff. Don’t forget that as long as you provide meter readings and co-operate with an energy company, they can only send bills dating back up to 12 months if they fail to bill you properly.
Lost accounts and old passbooks are a regular entrant. Often these contain little or no money because they’ve long been closed. But on one occasion Barclays came up trumps, digging up £887 in an account that had been opened in 1993 and sat dormant since 2004.
The best place to trace lost accounts is mylostaccount.org.uk or phone 020 3934 0329 for banks, 020 7520 5900 for building societies and 08085 007 007 for NS&I.
Travel insurance disputes or ruined holidays crop up all too frequently. The travel industry can feel like the Wild West, where you must stand your ground to have any hope of a fair outcome.
In May I covered the case of a woman who took her 86-year-old mother on a Thomson cruise with a request for assistance because she was a wheelchair user.
When they arrived there was no assistance and she told me the reps were not interested.
Thomson tried to blame the reader, dodged the issue and then offered £200 in vouchers. I eventually squeezed £730 out of them, yet throughout Thomson tried to cut me out of the loop. I’m afraid this has been another emerging theme with certain firms trying to exclude me when I make contact with one of your complaints.
They foolishly fail to realise the tight bond that we at the Mail have with our readers. Why should you want to collaborate against us with a firm that has behaved unreasonably towards you?
Last Christmas I had to take Samsung to task for trying to cut me out when a reader complained that it had taken a year to replace a damaged television.
Now — just to prove I have problems too — I am dealing with a firm over a new fridge/freezer. Its call centre is consistent in that each time I phone I am cut off and they have failed to call back. I hope that by next Christmas I will be able to report an update.
The volume of letters I receive means I can’t take on every single case. So how can you get yours closer to the top of the pile?
For starters include all the relevant information. I need your name, address, a contact phone number and email if you have it, plus the name of the organisation you’re complaining about — ‘my bank’ is not enough!
I need any complaint, order or customer number you may have been given and I need to know the amounts of money involved.
I like to see evidence that you have given the company a chance to sort out the problem. You’re expecting the press office and me to spend time on your complaint, so you should be prepared to invest time too.
With financial companies in particular it is important to tell them that you want your problem to be registered as a complaint — that forces them to put it on to official data and means they will take you more seriously.
You, or the person you’re writing on behalf of, must sign a waiver giving the firm permission to speak to me. Without this they are prevented from discussing your case by the Data Protection Act.
You can find a form at thisis money.co.uk/permission. There’s no need to send stamped addressed envelopes.
I also need you to be reasonable and flexible. You may be at the end of your tether, but I am trying to arbitrate so if you won’t pick up the phone and speak to a company we will get nowhere.
And one final thing. The truth will always out in these cases. If the firm is in the wrong then they will usually own up but, sadly, I seem to be receiving increasing numbers of letters from people who, to put it kindly, are economical with the facts.
If that proves to be the case, not only will you not win, but I may well write about it.
Happy New Year — and if a firm tries to pull a fast one, you know where to come.