Friday, 25 September 2020

GET THAT REFUND


All over the country thousands of people are due refunds for holidays, flights, trips, concerts, or events that they have paid for but have not happened. The law is clear – if you pay for a service and it is not provided then you are entitled to your money back. These rights are given under various legal provisions, but they all say money must be refunded. If you bought something through an agent - a ferry ticket for example - it is the supplier of the goods or service who remains liable not the agent.

Despite these clear rights, enforcing them can be difficult against a firm that says it will not – or cannot – pay you. It may have offered a voucher for a future replacement trip. Ot it might claim that the event has just been postponed and your ticket will be valid at some future date. 

None of those alternatives take away your right to a full refund.

Enforce your rights
Knowing your rights is one thing, enforcing them can be quite another. So here is my guide to the big stick you can use to make a company obey the law. 

Of course, you have written, emailed, phoned, hung on for ours and tried all the things the firm suggests and you still have not got your money back, as the law says you must. 

Time for the nuclear option. 

Step 1: The court
If a firm owes you money you can go to court to recover it. We used to call it the ‘small claims court’ but in England and Wales it is now done centrally through the Courts & Tribunals Service website at moneyclaim.gov.uk. In Scotland it is called the Simple Procedure at Scottish Courts and Tribunals. In Northern Ireland go to justice-ni.gov.uk and search ‘small claims’ or use this direct link

Don't worry, you are almost certainly not going to go to court. Begin the court action online. Fill in the claim form with your details, and the details of the firm and the amount claimed. Claim the full amount including non-returnable deposits. Put your reasons. Do not proceed with the claim but take a screenshot of the page.

If you are having difficulty finding details of the firm see 'tracke them down' below.

Step 2: The boss
Forget about customer service, go straight to the person who can make something happen. Email the Chief Executive of the company that owes you the money. You can find that address from www.ceoemail.com. Write a brief, polite but firm email summarising in a few lines what you are claiming and why, reminding them that you are entitlted to your money back and warn them that you expect a refund within seven days or you will go to court. 

Now attach the screenshot of your court claim to the email. That is the masterstroke. It proves that you are not just threatening to 'go to court' but that you know how to do it and are already halfway through the process. 

Emails to the boss will usually be read by a minion. But that does not matter. Every firm has a section to give cases special treatment. You have just reached it.

Shortly after you should get your money. One happy reader who had spent weeks going through the usual channels used this technique and emailed me: “It worked! Easyjet wrote back today and I’ve received the reimbursement to my credit card”.

Turn the screw
If after 14 days this method does not result in a full refund including non-returnable deposits and without deduction of any administrative fees, then go back to your online claim and start the court action. These proceedings are very simple and straighforward and any small fee charged at this stage will be refunded when you win. 

In fact your case will almost certainly never get to court. The last thing any firm wants is a judgement that it has to refund customers. It will be settled out of court and you will be given your refund - in full without fees or charges deducted - and reimbursed for your costs. You may even get a few pounds added on.

The regulator
Don't just take my word for it. The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) is a government agency whose job it is to promote fair competition between companies and make sure they do not trample on consumer rights.

 At the end of April 2020 it warned firms that 

Where a contract is not performed as agreed, the CMA considers that consumer protection law will generally allow consumers to obtain a refund. In particular, for most consumer contracts the CMA would expect a consumer to be offered a full refund where:

a business has cancelled a contract without providing any of the promised goods or services;
  • no service is provided by a business, for example because this is prevented by Government public health measures;
  • a consumer cancels, or is prevented from receiving any services, because Government public health measures mean they are not allowed to use the services.

The CMA said that weddings, holiday accommodation, and nurseries and childcare particularly concerned it. A couple of months later it forced Hoseasons and Cottages.com to offer refunds to customers instead of trying to fob them off with vouchers. It has now had similar successes with holiday firm TUI and with wedding organisers. It did not mention flights as they are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority but these rights to a refund apply equally to flights under the European Regulation EC 261/2004.

Track them down
One problem people find with global companies is that it is very hard to track down a UK address for them. You need that for your court claim - you can only sue a UK entity for money. First, search the website very carefully as it may be there. Second, have a good rummage round that ceoemail.com website - it will probably be there. If not try Companies House. It is almost certain the firm has a UK branch. Try searching on company names but always check you have the right one by looking at the 'people' or 'filing' tabs to see what the company does and who are its directors. The search is free - never google 'companies house' you will get firms that want to charge you for free information. But Google can be helpul to find who owns whom by googling the firm's name and clicking news to see who may own it now. 

Thanks
I am grateful to Helen Dewdney of thecomplainingcow.co.uk for this idea. She has many more in her excellent books How to Complain and 101 Habits of an Effective Complainer.

Paul Lewis 
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25 September 2020
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Monday, 21 September 2020

NOT SO PREMIUM BONDS

Premium Bonds give a poorer return from the December 2020 draw. So are they still a good place for your savings?


Premium bonds are good if you fulfil three conditions
  • You can buy the maximum £50,000 or close to it. 
  • You pay higher or additional rate income tax. 
  • You have used up your personal savings allowance with interest on other savings outside ISAs.
The further you are from those conditions the worse they are.

How do they work?
Each month the 95 billion £1 bonds earn interest which is 1% from the December 2020 draw. Each month the interest - which from December NS&I says will be £82 million - is put into a prize fund. That total is then shared at random among the bondholders as prizes. From December each bond has a 1 in 34,500 chance of winning a prize in each monthly draw. Prizes are paid tax-free so the return is better for higher rate (40%) or additional rate (45%) taxpayers.

The fund is divided so that 98% of the prizes are for £25 which uses up 85% of the money. From December about 2.8 million £25 prizes will be paid. Just over 25,000 prizes each of £50 and £100 will also be paid. Those three prizes use 90% of the prize money and accounted for 99.8% of the prizes. 

Go for the max
Although the stated interest rate is 1%, when considering the actual interest earned in any realistic timeframe it is only the £25 prizes that should be counted. That means the effective interest rate - the money used for the prizes you might win - is 0.85% from December. 

With the maximum £50,000 bonds you will now expect a £25 prize every month at least - 17 over a year. Of course chance will not produce an even return. But over time that should be the average. That is equivalent to earning 1.06% taxable interest for a basic rate taxpayer, 1.42% for a higher rate taxpayer and 1.55% for a taxpayer with an income over £150,000 who pays 45% income tax. 

Those are not bad rates for an instant access account. Money in Premium Bonds can be taken out without notice at any time, though it may take a few days to get your money back.

You would expect a £50 or £100 prize very 6 and a bit years, a £500 prize every 33 years and £1000 ever 100 years. Above that prizes range from £5000 to £1 million. Although winning a million is a nice thought, forget it. You won’t ever win that prize. Even with the maximum £50,000 bonds you would have only an even chance of winning a million after 82,000 years. That was when when humans were still having sex with Neanderthals and 40,000 years before we started painting in caves. The odds of winning the second prizes of £100,000 are just half those for the million pound prizes. If you bought £50,000 of premium bonds to celebrate your first cave painting you might by now have won one prize of £100,000. 

Even the smaller large prizes are very sparse. If you had bought £50,000 premium bonds to celebrate the death of the Roman Emperor Caligula in 37 AD you would have expected just one £5000 prize by now. You will wait another 1975 years for the next.

Fewer bonds 
With smaller amounts of bonds, prizes of course are much rarer. £100 gives you an even chance of winning a £25 prize every 29 years. The new minimum of £25 would mean a wait of 115 years to have an even chance of one prize and 200,000 years to win a £1000 prize. 

With one bond bought when when Stonehenge was built you might have expected one prize of £25 by now at the current rates, and only have a few hundred years to wait for the second. Earth has barely been around long enough to have an even chance of getting the £1,000,000 prize which happens ever 4 billion years with one bond. 

Good for the much better off
The interest on all savings is tax free up to £1000 for basic rate taxpayers and £500 for higher rate taxpayers. So the tax-free prizes are of most value to those who have other savings which have used up those savings allowances. For higher rate taxpayers that probably means £50,000 in top savings products as well as any cash in ISAs. For basic rate taxpayers it means at least £100,000 in best buy svings accounts. Additional rate taxpayers do not get the personal savings allowance. So premium bonds are very good for them. More than half the bonds are held by people who have at least 30,000 of them and 650,000 individuals own the maximum £50,000.

Randomness
ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) who draws the winning bonds each month is not a computer. However hard they try computers cannot produce genuine truly random numbers. So ERNIE uses a process which was invented by a Bletchley Park codebreaker - called transistor thermal noise - to create truly random events which are then counted and combined in turn into bond numbers. Every month the Government Actuary checks the prize list for randomness before the prizes are paid.

Because every bond really does have an equal chance of of winning there is no point in cashing in 'unlucky' bonds and buying new ones. Doing that also means there is a month between selling and buying when the bonds are not in the draw. So it worsens the odds of winning.

Buying
You can buy Premium Bonds online at www.nsandi.com where you can also check for prizes and trace lost bonds. You can also buy them by phone or post. You must be at least 16 years old. Parents, realtives, and friends can buy them for children under 16.

From March 2021 all prizes must be paid direct into a bank account. At the moment about a quarter are paid in the post with a warrant - effectively a cheque on the Government. NS&I says there will be provision made for people without a bank account to receive the money or a mobile phone or email to be informed they have won. Details are awaited.Meanwhile those with bank accounts can register the details at nsandi.com/prize-options
 

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