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News : Service Promises to Investigate Rip-offs and Complaints – in EVERY Sector
London, UK, Aug 12, 2015 -- Whether you bought a packet of crisps or a luxury holiday, a new body has pledged to help you if something goes wrong – regardless of the industry.
Open for business today, the "consumer ombudsman" is backed by an official consumer organisation, the Trading Standards Institute, although its power has yet to be tested.
The body's decisions are not legally-binding on retailers and firms unless they agree to join. This is because it is not a public body, unlike the Financial Ombudsman, which was set up by parliament.
So far, no shops have publicly announced they are signed up.
The free-to-use, online service claims to "provide customers with one place" to complain and is backed by Ombudsman Services, an organisation that covers complaints involving energy companies and communications providers.
Why has it been set up?
Rules from Europe mean that every sector must have a so-called "alternative dispute resolution body" that is officially approved to investigate complaints. This means an ombudsman will be in every sector by the target date, October 2015.
New ombudsmen must be approved by Trading Standards, the official consumer body, but are allowed to charge shops and businesses to subscribe.
So far, Dean Dunham, a consumer lawyer, has set up a retail ombudsman for shopping complaints. The Civil Aviation Authority is funding an aviation ombudsman to investigate airline complaints.
Supermarket and online shoppers, for example, had nowhere to complain except the individual retailer or small claims court, until the recent creation of the retail ombudsman.
But Ombudsman Services hopes to rival these bodies by unveiling its consumer arm.
There are concerns that people may be confused by multiple ombudsmen cropping up in any one sector. Airline complaints, for example, will be the domain of the consumer and aviation ombudsmen.
"There's definitely a risk of confusion for consumers," said Lewis Shand Smith, the body's chief ombudsman who has the final say on complaints referred to the new consumer service.
"Britain is unique in telling the market to provide an ombudsman, rather than setting one up that's officially approved by the state."
He said Ombudsman Services, which was contacted by 216,000 people last year, has the best resources, such as a call centre and in-house legal experts, to investigate consumer complaints.
Until now, 2,600 of people who contacted Ombudsman Services are turned away each year because their complaint involved a sector where there was no independent body to resolve disputes.
Companies which sign up to the consumer ombudsman pay an annual subscription and a fee every time the ombudsman considers a complaint, which is at least £45 per customer.
"Consumer is a catch-all term, so people can come to us with any complaint and we will help them," Mr Shand Smith said. "If there is already an approved body for their type of complaint, we will refer them elsewhere."
A gripe with a bank account or mortgage, for example, would be referred to the Financial Ombudsman.
To complain to the ombudsman, a customer must first have exhausted the company's own complaints department. Customers must do this within a year of being aware of the issue, and then have nine months to contact the ombudsman.
The consumer ombudsman then aims to resolve complaints within six to eight weeks – although this depends on the cooperation of the company.
Npower was recently told to give 1,000 customers free energy after their complaints to Ombudsman Services took too long. In some cases, customers were left waiting 20 months for complaints, which mostly revolved around billing issues, to be resolved.
Across all industries, people made 66 million complaints to businesses about products and services last year – or one complaint every 1.2 seconds – according to research by Ombudsman Services.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Chartered Trading Standards Institute:
The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) is a professional association which represents trading standards professionals working in local authorities, business and consumer sectors and in central government in the UK and overseas.
Published: Thursday, August 13, 2015