TOM UTLEY: Now that I'm semi-retired, I have time to fight faceless companies

TOM UTLEY: Now that I’m semi-retired, I have time to fight faceless companies

Have you ever felt like everyone in the company is out to rip you off? If so, don’t worry. You probably don’t suffer from paranoia, because chances are you’re absolutely right.

Such, at any rate, was my experience last week, when I was locked in a battle with two well-known companies – one a giant in the insurance industry, the other a major player in the home security.

I hope you will forgive me if I express my woes in this space. My excuse is that I bet countless readers have similar stories to tell of the cavalier way big corporations treat their customers, in an age when the standard response to any call for fairness is, “The computer says Nope”.

So let me start with the intriguing mystery of why my building insurance company seems to think my house is 18.5% more likely to collapse, sag or catch fire because I’m born in 1953 rather than 1935.

To punish

The question arose when I received a letter from More Th>n, the irritatingly named firm whose policies are underwritten by Royal & Sun Alliance, asking me to renew my cover for the year from Tuesday next.

I noticed, all at once, that the premium for the next 12 months was slightly (or should it be “plus > n”?) 10% higher than last year.

But since I’m a reasonable guy, I felt the request was fair enough. Indeed, inflation is rapidly heading towards 10%, and the figure is already higher in the construction industry, whose services would be needed if my house were to be rebuilt.

To give More Th>n its due, I must also point out that its policy is still much cheaper than the insurance buildings I had had with another company over the previous three decades, before I changed last year.

It’s only now that I realize, asshole that I am, that for all these years I’ve been a victim of the insurance industry’s habit of punishing customers for their loyalty. The longer you stay in a particular business, the more it will take advantage of you.

The lesson, of course, is to shop around – but for a lazy old fellow like me, not very good with the internet, this can be a formidable problem.

Either way, I felt I probably wouldn’t find a better deal anywhere else, so I set out to renew my policy online.

The computer said no. Although I entered my policy number and date of birth three times, the same message kept coming back: the company had no record of a policy with that number matching my date of birth.

“I’ve been scouring my brain for a reason why my house should be considered a bigger insurance risk just because I’m 18 years younger than the computer originally thought”

Hell. All I had to do was call the “Customer Renewal Line” listed on my bill, and I prepared to be held in a queue until the deathblow. (Oh, how I sympathize with Tony McBride, of Leamington Spa, who complained in a letter published in Tuesday’s Mail: ‘Why do companies never answer emails or the phone?’)

Sure enough, after what felt like an eternity of listening to boring music and recorded messages, I gave up on my first attempt. But after walking the dog, I tried again.

This time, miraculously, my call was answered by an actual human being. And a useful one, at that.

It turns out that somewhere along the line, someone had transposed the last two digits of my date of birth into More Th>n’s computer system, making it 1935 instead of 1953.

“I corrected you that,” the helpful lady said, and I thanked her. But then she added, “Just a minute, I’ll have to see if that does anything for your bounty.”

Basically, since I’m 68, not 86, his computer said I would have to pay 18.5% more to insure my house.

I was confused. I scoured my brain for some reason why my house should be considered a bigger insurance risk just because I’m 18 years younger than the computer originally thought.

Sting

Are people in their late 60s, like me, really more likely than octogenarians to burn down our homes or watch them crumble into the clay of London? Or is it just that 86 year olds are less likely to file insurance claims? I ask in the spirit of innocent inquiry.

The helpful lady who answered the phone could not enlighten me. Neither did More Th>n’s consumer PR manager when I called him yesterday, although he kindly said he would get back to me after asking questions. As I write, seven hours later, I am still waiting. Obviously, this is not an easy question.

Call me an old cynic, but I think the insurance industry will seize on any excuse to sting its customers for extra cash, and thus add to the misery of inflation. And don’t get me started on the energy companies, with their huge profits, because my fellow expert Alex Brummer talks about them elsewhere in the paper today.

My annoyance with More Th>n, however, pales in comparison to my anger at the way I have been treated over the years by multinational burglar alarm company ADT – another company that apparently believes in the punishment of customer loyalty.

Rewind to last fall when an ADT engineer came to fix our old system (a builder had accidentally severed a cable). He told me it wasn’t worth fixing and advised me to upgrade to the company’s latest wireless gear, which would not only be better but probably cheaper too.

On October 14, a very good salesman came, promising he would save me money, and I signed up to have the old system removed and the new installed.

OK, this wireless system would cost me £419.88 a year to hire and maintain, as opposed to the £391.99 I paid last year for the old one. But it seemed to be more reliable, and what’s the odd £27.89 these days? No more than two packs of cigarettes.

Moreover, he assured me that I could keep the system after 18 months, without additional annual costs.

I thought that sounded like a great deal. That was until my contract renewal bill came in earlier this month: annual rental and maintenance of the new system, a whopping £923.66! What kind of fool did they take me for?

Scandalous

It didn’t help that I have since researched alarm systems on the internet, and see I could have purchased one, apparently identical to the one from ADT, for a one off payment of around £320, no additional cost. Already.

With smoke billowing from my ears, I sent an angry e-mail to ADT’s accounts department saying that a mistake must have been made with that outrageous bill. I was answered from an address in Bratislava, Slovakia (which did not inspire confidence), saying that the ministry could not amend my bill. The computer said no.

So I then called the number given to me for billing inquiries. I was told no, there was no error with my bill. The new system counted as an upgrade, so the charge for it was in addition to the removed ADT system.

“With smoke billowing from my ears, I sent a furious email to ADT’s accounts department saying that a mistake must have been made with this outrageous bill”

“That’s how it works,” says my new executioner. But he put me back in touch with that silver-tongued salesman – and he, at least, agreed that the invoice was fake.

“Give me a few days and I’ll sort it out,” he said. That was two weeks and two days ago. Not a word from Bratislava since.

The terrible thing is that in years past, when I was busy with a full-time job, I might have paid that bill with a scowl and resignation. Indeed, I bet many other victims of scams, accidental or otherwise, are coughing obediently as they cannot cope with the hassle of a legal confrontation.

But I’m a changed man now, with free time. Mrs. U always tells me that I need to find a hobby in my semi-retirement. Suing corporate chancellors through small claims court could be the solution.

#TOM #UTLEY #semiretired #time #fight #faceless #companies

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