Thirty-two years ago I bounced enthusiastically into the Money Mail office for the first time.
Thus began a journey which has encompassed campaigns, scandals, stock market crashes, bank failures and financial crises.
From day one I learned that your letters are at the heart of everything we do. Your support lends strength to our campaigns, your information reveals facts firms try to hide and your requests for help tell us where customer service and consumer protection are failing.
Hi ho savers: Letters editor Tony Hazell is riding off into the sunset after 32 years helping readers with their money problems
I learned my trade at the knee of Margaret Stone — the woman who invented modern personal finance journalism – before taking over from her as Money Mail editor in 1999.
When I stepped down in 2011, I took up the cudgels as consumer champion to fight your corner against companies that refused to listen.
In the decade I’ve been doing this, I have won back millions of pounds for readers who have been treated appallingly by financial firms.
Many cases, particularly where fraud, pensions and life insurance policies were concerned, involved life-changing sums of money.
But while it is always satisfying to secure a big win, the most heart-wrenching and ultimately rewarding letters I’ve dealt with have been from the bereaved, very elderly and those acting as an attorney for loved ones.
The way some companies treat vulnerable customers never ceases to horrify me and it has given me great pleasure to help right these wrongs.
Sadly it seems that while consumer protection law has improved, customer service has got worse. Businesses claim their lines are especially busy regardless of when you phone.
No matter what time of day or night I open the EDF app, I see the same message: ‘We’re experiencing high call volumes right now.’
The lie masks under-staffed call centres, as firms try to force customers to use online ‘bots’ — computer algorithms posing as people.
The infirm and vulnerable are facing greater financial exclusion when they cannot deal face-to-face or penetrate the barriers companies construct both online and on the phone.
The push to online banking has also put vulnerable people more at risk of fraud from cold callers and internet scammers.
Warnings cannot prepare people for the sophisticated criminals they face. Banks that shut branches and force the vulnerable online bear direct responsibility.
Having said this, I despair of the increasing lack of personal responsibility and the hunt for compensation over the most trivial issues.
It is your money, so you must look after it. I receive pleas for help from people who do not look properly at bank or credit card statements.
Final words: Tony’s best tips
Tony became Money Mail editor in 1999 before taking the reins as consumer champion in 2011
- Careful of calls: Beware of any calls you are not expecting. Scam calls will often have a pause before someone speaks starts speaking and they may know your name. Always hang up. Use BT Call Minder or similar services to screen calls.
- Banked to rights: You can get a refund from your credit card provider under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act for purchases between £100 and £30,000 if something goes wrong. With a debit card, you have similar protection under chargeback rules.
- Record of receipts: Keep receipts to ensure that returning faulty goods is simple. A folder for each month can help. The Consumer Rights Act states your contract is with the retailer who sells you goods, so it must resolve the issue. If a retailer sends you to a manufacturer, inform Trading Standards.
- Don’t just click: Look out for clone internet sites that look similar to genuine ones but will charge you extra for services such as replacing your driving licence or claiming tax relief. Any government website should end with gov.uk. Also, be wary of websites that appear at the top of any searches or claim to be sponsored. Look in the search bar at the top of the internet page to see if the web address corresponds to the organisation you want.
- Be responsible: It’s your money so check your bank and credit card statements every month and query anything that looks out of place. The same goes for services bills. If you’ve signed up to internet-only billing, then go online or use the app to check.
- Complain like a king: Give the firm one chance to put it right. On the second, tell it you want to make an official complaint that you want recorded on its published complaints data. If this fails, the Financial Ombudsman Service will investigate most problems involving financial firms and services. Telephone 0800 023 4567 or see financial-ombudsman.org.uk.
How else can phantom or incorrect direct debits be paid for years before being spotted?
One reader wrote certain of errors as her electricity bills were so high.
Further investigation revealed she was running a hot tub and had expensive underfloor electric heating on for most of the day.
I’ve always considered it important to highlight that the reader is not always right
What should I make of the person who told me a water leak had ruined the kitchen and electrics?
The more I uncovered, the more I suspected she was trying to have her home rewired and a new kitchen courtesy of the insurance company.
Sorry, but while I will fight for readers, I won’t be an advocate for fraud.
For more than three decades Money Mail has helped me personally as I have learned along with you.
I enjoyed the benefits of paying down my mortgage as fast as I could after seeing the tens of thousands of pounds it would save in interest.
I have never paid interest on credit cards. Every pound paid in interest is a pound you don’t have available for your next holiday or meal out.
Financial advisers encouraged me to think long term on my investments, to make certain I’ve got balance in my portfolio and not to panic when the stock market falls. Time will help you ride out the shocks. If all your investments are soaring then you’ve probably got too much in one sector.
I learned for myself the damage charges can do to long-term investments such as pensions and Isas.
I’ve benefited from understanding income tax and using every scrap of tax relief.
Pensions, which offer income tax relief on money invested, and Isas, which provide a tax-free income, form the bedrock of my savings.
When it comes to consumer disputes, the key is: don’t get angry, get even. It is not the fault of the person on the other end of the phone.
Write down the points you want to make and explain yourself clearly. If dealing with a company, say you want your complaint officially recorded.
If dealing with a retailer, familiarise yourself with the main points of the Consumer Rights Act.
There are good explanations on the internet at gov.uk, citizensadvice.org.uk and which.co.uk.
Use the various free ombudsman services rather than ambulance-chasing legal firms, which may take up to 40 per cent of your compensation.
To avoid fraud, don’t engage with cold callers or unknown emailers.
My mother-in-law tells cold callers she is hard of hearing, asks them to write to her and puts the phone down without giving her address.
Finally, I’d like to share with you how Money Mail has played an even more important part in my life.
Back in 2003 a wonderful lady called Jill was reading Money Mail while sunning herself on a beach in Spain.
She spotted a case study of a boy about to go to Nottingham University in a feature about student finance.
That case study was my stepson. (We were desperate).
‘Look, this boy is also going to Nottingham. Perhaps you’ll meet him,’ Jill told her daughter.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mum. Nottingham is a big university and he’s doing a different subject.’
Mum, of course, knew best. They met in the first week, started going out months later (after he confessed to being the boy in the Mail), married (eventually!) and presented us with a granddaughter last summer. So, thanks Money Mail, for everything.
As I draw a line under resolving your problems, a word of warning, I may be stepping down but I’m not going away entirely. If something gets under my skin then like Arnie Schwarzenegger — I’ll be back.
Introducing your new consumer champion
At your service: Our incoming consumer champion Sally Hamilton
Next week, Money Mail launches a new letters page. Our incoming consumer champion is Sally Hamilton, an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years’ experience, including at our sister paper The Mail on Sunday, where she was deputy personal finance editor for six years.
She joins hot foot from a year of helping solve readers’ money issues for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, where she won back more than £2 million in those 12 months alone.
Sally says: ‘I can’t wait to get started helping readers sort out their financial headaches, whether it is assisting them in chasing refunds owed, dealing with bills or seeking compensation for those who have been wronged by a provider, suffered poor service or fallen victim to a scam.
‘It does not matter if the sums involved are a few pounds or many thousands, you can be sure I will be on the side of those who have been treated unfairly by a company or organisation.’
Any letters recently sent to Tony will be passed to Sally. Contact her at [email protected] or Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, Kensington, London W8 5TT.
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