Tony Hetherington is Financial Mail on Sunday’s ace investigator, fighting readers corners, revealing the truth that lies behind closed doors and winning victories for those who have been left out-of-pocket. Find out how to contact him below.
Apology: Emma Stott, from tech provider Chess ICT
C.M. writes: Chess ICT Ltd, a large phone and broadband provider, used my direct debit to take money from my bank account for services I had not requested or agreed to.
It introduced a fraud monitoring service that requires the customer to opt out rather than opt in, and assumes that silence constitutes acceptance.
I believe this is against the law, but Chess ICT appears to have applied it to all its customers.
Tony Hetherington replies: What you have described is inertia selling. A business tells the customer it will provide a service and collect payment unless the customer cancels the service, which, of course, the customer never ordered in the first place.
Under a succession of laws going back to the 1970s, inertia selling has pretty much been wiped out as unlawful. But there is a loophole, and it is quite a big one. The law only fully protects ordinary consumers, and not businesses. You and your wife run a bed-and-breakfast business, so you are fair game.
Emma Stott, who heads customer services at Chess ICT, explained that this is why the company used an opt-out system when it launched its fraud monitor service, which she says has been a huge success, saving hundreds of business customers hundreds of thousands of pounds. The service was offered free for the first three months, after which charges kicked in.
But she added: ‘As there has clearly been some form of miscommunication, we can only apologise and offer a full credit for the fraud monitoring service of £98.26 plus VAT.’
Chess ICT is topping this up with a £50 ex-gratia payment.
I have to admit that it is years since I last received any complaint about inertia selling, so it has been startling to find that anyone in business – even the smallest self-employed trader working from a back bedroom – can find themselves without legal protection.
Yet this is exactly the situation. Sylvia Rook, an expert on fair trading laws with the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, told me: ‘It makes no difference if the business is large or small. The law looks at whether the goods or services are used principally by a business or by a consumer.’
And she explained that the original 1971 law banning inertia selling does protect businesses when unsolicited goods are supplied, but this protection does not apply to unsolicited services. All the various laws and regulations that have come into force since 1971 have, in any event, only applied to consumers, leaving businesses out in the cold.
The huge growth in the number of people who work for themselves, often from home, has left millions exposed to inertia selling deals, which – unlike the service from Chess ICT – are little more than very expensive scams. Whoever ends up with whichever Government job over the next several weeks, I suggest they look urgently at this before a loophole turns into a costly scandal.
What became of my €20,420 from HSBC?
M.W. writes: HSBC has failed to transfer €20,420 from an account I closed into my new account with a different bank.
Should HSBC compensate me and reimburse me for the time my funds have been beyond my control?
Tony Hetherington replies: You opened an account with the fledgling Starling Bank, and HSBC confirmed in writing that your euros – worth about £17,300 – had been transferred.
More than three weeks later, HSBC emailed you, saying the transfer had bounced.
You complained and, after a further seven weeks, HSBC said it had made the transfer again. However, a fortnight later the money had still not arrived in your Starling account.
HSBC then said it had transferred €19,000, followed by a separate transfer of almost €900, leaving €63 unaccounted for. The bank told me: ‘The incorrect details were provided by the customer for the transaction, but we communicated in error that a further payment had been issued.’
You have told me that you disagree, and that your branch gave you a six-page form for the transfer, which you completed, but HSBC later claimed it only had four pages.
When Starling first returned your money, HSBC had already closed your account, so it simply landed in one of the bank’s own holding accounts, and in pounds, not euros.
This whole process has taken several months. HSBC offered £250 to make up for the delays, but this included the remaining €63 and, you say, barely covered losses made in changes from euros to sterling and then back to euros. You have now complained to the Financial Ombudsman Service in the hope of a better decision.
Infuriating cost of calling taxman
A.G. writes: Are others experiencing, like me, a wait of up to an hour on the phone to reach a real person at Revenue & Customs?
As it is not a free number, we are paying a huge amount just to wait in a queue.
The Revenue has an annoying system that makes you listen to automated messages, a robot asks you the nature of your enquiry, then repeats it back to you, then repeats your National Insurance number, and then cuts you off as the revenue is too busy to take your call.
Tony Hetherington replies: You are not alone. Your letter will strike a chord with anyone who has tried to make an enquiry about their income tax. Once upon a time, you could walk into any local tax office and make an enquiry at the counter. Today, this is impossible and you have to think twice before wasting time and money on a phone call. The taxman uses 0300 numbers which charge up to 10p a minute from a landline and up to 40p a minute from a mobile.
Revenue officials tell me none of this money goes to them, and all of it goes to the network provider.
They are recruiting extra staff for their helplines and, they say, have cut the average waiting time to just over 12 minutes.
All I can say from personal experience is that some callers must have been very lucky. My own calls have had me listening over and over again to the infuriating message telling me the answer to my question might well be found by looking at the Revenue’s website.
It is tempting to scream ‘Liar!’ back at the robot. Could the taxman not play this message just once or twice rather than indefinitely?
A spokesperson told me: ‘These messages are not something we have plans to change.’ And it dares to call us ‘customers’ nowadays instead of ‘taxpayers’.
If you believe you are the victim of financial wrongdoing, write to Tony Hetherington at Financial Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TS or email email@example.com. Because of the high volume of enquiries, personal replies cannot be given. Please send only copies of original documents, which we regret cannot be returned.
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