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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 16:20 GMT
Making a financial complaint
Angry man

It is an unfortunate fact that the companies that provide financial services sometimes make mistakes and, even more unfortunately, are sometime unscrupulous in their dealings.

Over the past year about a quarter of a million people have contacted the government's Financial Ombudsman Service with concerns about financial products and services.

The complaints ranged from smaller matters, like unfair penalty charges on current accounts, too much larger complaints, including pension and endowment mortgage mis-selling.

No matter what your complaint against a financial services company, there is a basic set of steps you should follow.

By doing this, you can help to make sure your complaint is dealt with quickly, and improve your chances of getting a satisfactory result.

A dish best served cold

If you feel you have a complaint the first thing to do is to work out why you feel hard done by.

You might think this is obvious, and indeed it may be, but you have to be sure of what has gone wrong and what you would like the company to do to rectify the situation.

If it is a complex problem it will pay to make notes about what happened.

Collect supporting documents that back your argument.

These may be bank or investment statements, sales literature or letters from the company.

If you have spoken to people from the company try to remember the conversations you had.

Write down things like dates, names and questions that you were asked and answered.

Get in touch

The next step is to contact the company itself.

The Financial Ombudsman Service, which might eventually help you with your complaint, won't step in until you have given the company a chance to sort out the problem.

It is best to make a complaint in writing.

The reason for that is twofold.

  • You are more likely to be able to clearly set out your complaint if you write it down.

  • And chances are you will be quite angry with the firm. Writing rather than calling a company will help you keep your emotions out of the complaint.

    Writing tips

    When writing a letter of complaint keep it brief.

    Use bullet points to set out your argument, this will help you keep to facts and cut down on words.

    Make sure you get to your complaint straight away.

    And make sure you tell the company what you want them to do about it.

    If you are looking for a refund or other action then make sure it is reasonable.

    Use the evidence you have collected to support your argument.

    Don't make the letter too long - two pages at the most should be your goal.

    Try to type the letter - your handwriting might make sense to you but could be hieroglyphics to others.

    Before you send the letter off make sure that you are sending it to the right place.

    If you are writing to a big company chances are they will have a complaints department. Call the company to ask where to send the letter - don't be tempted to go into the complaint over the phone.

    Make a copy of the letter and keep it and any responses safe.

    Lastly, clearly mark your letter as a complaint. Write it on the envelope and on the top of the letter.

    Now what?

    Now you will have to wait for the complaint to be dealt with.

    David Cresswell, a spokesman for the Financial Ombudsman Service, says: "Companies have to respond within eight weeks, that is the law."

    The Financial Ombudsman Service has been set up by the government to deal with complaints against financial services companies.

    It deals with everything from pet insurance to futures contracts. If it doesn't cover your particular problem it will be able to point you in the right direction.

    It is a free service, and in this case we really mean free - no matter what happens, the Ombudsman itself will never charge you a penny.

    Also it is very unlikely that you will ever have to meet face to face with the Ombudsman.

    The service prefers to deal in phone calls and correspondence and only calls people in when it is absolutely necessary.

    How do I contact the Ombudsman

    The company you have made a complaint against has to, by law, give you details on how to contact the Ombudsman.

    If they don't do this, or don't respond to you at all, then you can and should contact the Ombudsman directly.

    You can call the Ombudsman on 0845 080 1800. The call is charged at local rates.

    Alternatively you could take a look at their website - a link appears in the right hand column of this story.

    The Ombudsman website is worth a read if you are planning to make a complaint.

    You can print out a number of forms from the site, which should speed up the processing of your complaint.

    What does it do?

    Once you have complained to the Ombudsman it can do one of three things - conciliate, adjudicate or arbitrate.

    Conciliation is an informal procedure that will see the Ombudsman try to help you and the company you have made a complaint against come to an agreement.

    About 75% of cases that reach the Ombudsman are solved in this way.

    Adjudication will see the Ombudsman research your case and hear both sides of the story.

    It will then give its recommendation on what it thinks should be done.

    The last resort is arbitration where the Ombudsman effectively tells the two parties what they should do.

    This decision is binding on the company; it must follow the Ombudsman's ruling, but the person making a complaint can still take the matter to court if they are not happy.

    David Cresswell says: "The Ombudsman's ruling does not affect your statutory rights.

    "But you have to ask yourself if you are willing to spend the money on taking the case to court and why you believe a judge will rule differently to the Ombudsman."

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