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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 14:53 GMT
Endowment red letters criticised
The clock starts ticking when the red letters arrive

Life insurance companies have been criticised for the letters they have been sending out to customers, warning them of problems with their mortgage endowments.

The so called "third wave" of red letters has begun and they warn of a strong possibility of a shortfall when the policy matures.

However the letters do not mention that customers can complain and may only have a short time left to do so.

These red letters are crucial for some policy-holders as they will only have six months left in which to pursue a case for compensation through the Financial Ombudsman Service.

One of the first to send its letters to its policy-holders is Friends Provident. But more are expected soon.

Sense of urgency

Independent financial adviser Mark Meldon at RC Gray & Co told BBC Radio 4's Money Box programme the letters are confusing, and many customers will not act.

If it is a red letter, there is a high risk the policy will not pay out, and that starts a very important clock ticking
Louise Hanson, Consumers Association

He continued: "One could argue that the Financial Services Authority and the life industry really want to get this over and done with this year... By September, October time there will be no more people able to complain about endowment mis-sales."

Commenting on the letters, Louise Hanson, Head of Campaigns at the Consumers Association said:

"By calling them a yearly statement, it does not bring a sense of urgency, or really accurately reflect, that if it is a red letter, there is a high risk the policy will not pay out and that starts a very important clock ticking."

Appropriate action

But Alan Leaman, Head of Public Affairs at the Association of British Insurers (ABI) denied that his members are trying to mislead their customers.

I think what we would be pleased about is if people took appropriate action if they were facing a shortfall
Alan Leaman, ABI

"The wordings of [the letters] were poured over in great detail with the FSA and they are accompanied by an FSA leaflet entitled 'Your endowment, have you acted yet?', with a very clear description of - if you want to complain - how to go about it."

Mr Leaman told the programme the letters are meant to get a response:

"I think what we would be pleased about is if people took appropriate action if they were facing a shortfall."

But Louise Hanson says letters should be properly colour-coded and include information on what mis-selling is and how to complain in the body of the letter itself.

Meanwhile policy-holders receiving letters are advised to look out for the phrase "there is a "high risk" the policy will not pay out".

Concerned policy-holders can also call their insurers to find out more.

BBC Radio 4's Money Box Live was broadcast on Saturday, 28 February, 2004 at 1502 GMT.

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