Once upon a time there was a mouse mat. A mouse mat that threatened to undermine global efforts to avert nuclear warfare. The sales photo on Etsy showed a blameless-looking rubber rectangle, hand made in Leicester, with a Persian rug motif. But PayPal decided that it violated international sanctions and suspended the account of the unsuspecting purchaser.
To understand the modern business model – and the contents of my consumer inbox – look no further than this “illicit” item.
A computer algorithm had decided the mat was Iranian contraband, computer software suspended the customer’s PayPal account, automated warnings threatened termination unless the customer could prove its provenance, and customer service agents seemed powerless to apply human logic.
It was the same artificial intelligence and human apathy that forced graduates to keep funding repaid loans , informed an Ovo customer that they owed £19,000 for two months of energy and allowed a 10-minute flight schedule change to scupper a honeymoon.
Add to the mix this year’s double act, Brexit and Covid, which gave companies two cast-iron new excuses for skirting consumer rights law. As much of the nation retreated to the sofa to work, and Brexit muddied the rule book, the computer was given ever greater control and customers found themselves trapped in limbo. “Kafkaesque nightmare” is a recurring phrase from our literary readers.
As always, there are so many worthy contenders for an award, but it’s been a pleasure to narrow them down to the following standout takes on customer service. In all cases, the customer was only offered effective service after I intervened.
Most rubbish excuse
A joint gong for eBay and delivery firm UPS. When MS of Manchester sought a refund from an eBay seller for a £130 satnav that never arrived, he was refused. eBay sided with the seller, since tracking showed that the item had been delivered – to his rubbish bin. How could UPS have known that, without a notification card, MS would not think to check his wheelie bin before collection day?
Bleeding heart for empathy
Legal & General tried hard for this honour. It twice informed a grieving man that he had been bequeathed £14,000 from his late sister’s pension plan before realising it had sent the forms to the wrong relative. Then it erroneously told the deceased’s father to expect £19,000. The bequest was, in fact, intended for the grandson who, in proud Scottish tradition, bore the same name, but a different address to his father and grandfather. The comically named “sensitive claims” department discovered it had lost the late woman’s letter of instruction and, in its absence, refused to discuss the legacy with her executors.
Surrealism in Whitehall
The UK government sweeps the table. Take your pick. The Department for Work and Pensions misunderstood its own rules and penalised a universal credit claimant for not applying while in an induced coma. The Home Office, whose rules on residency permits are so misleading and whose stance, when applicants are duly misled, so intransigent, that an eligible spouse was denied indefinite leave to remain and presented with a £1,000 bill for NHS services.
Or there’s the Ministry of Justice’s multimillion- pound reforms to streamline the probate service. Closure of local probate offices, a new online system declared unfit for purpose by legal firms, and a Covid backlog, have left families in legal limbo for up to nine months.
Most cunning cop-out
What’s more risky – explosives or footwear? Both score equally, according to courier firm DPD. Its stance makes perfect sense. It allows customers to book a delivery for an identified item, pay extra for insurance cover, and then, if the consignment goes missing and a claim is made, it can duck a payout by declaring it’s on a list of prohibited items along with human flesh and counterfeit currency.
Vigilant customers, who study delivery exclusions, may be none the wiser. DPD forbids the mailing of “personal effects”, while Hermes refuses to pay compensation in the event it wrecks or loses “composite items of any description” or “items which can be exchanged by themselves, or with any other item, for money or goods or services”.
Brexit bonus prize
WK of Cumbria’s purposeful lockdown hours were spent contesting a £111 customs charge on a £12 wall bracket. It had been omitted from a delivery from the German company Loxhome in November 2020, and sent separately in the new year. By then, post-Brexit customs charges had kicked in. The duty for the bracket was applied to the entire £460 order. WK refused delivery to avoid the charges. But courier UPS returned to slip it through his letter box and, by the time the Observer intervened, debt collectors were pursuing him for £115.
Meanwhile, a new identity was the Brexit bonus for some startled EU nationals who had been granted EU Settled Status in the UK. A Home Office computer anomaly meant that women who had lived for decades under their married surname, were registered under their birth name which appears first on some EU passports. They faced losing access to services because their proof of residency rights did not match official documents.
Great escape artists
Holidays! Remember those jaunts to Mediterranean beaches in the old days? While the few who dared set their sights on sunny climes battle for refunds for cancelled trips, many who played safe and booked local are also out of pocket. One reader did get as far as Cornwall, only to discover that the five-star water resort he’d booked had no record of him. Booking.com reassured the family they had been rebooked – in the beguiling suburb of Uxbridge, 250 miles away.
Airbnb, meanwhile, decided that lockdowns are not an extenuating circumstance for cancellation and refused to require hosts to refund customers whose trips were banned by government rules, while deducting its 15% service fee from hosts who decided to do the right thing.
Distinguished desertion order
The high street banks can share this between them for abandoning scam victims to penury. Criminals have again been the biggest Covid winners with increasingly sophisticated strategies to access personal accounts . The good news is, major banks have pledged to refund victims who were not unduly negligent. The bad is, they often try their darnedest to wriggle out of it.
I’ve investigated unrefunded losses of £900,000 this year and persuaded banks to return 54%, including a £225,000 pension pot stolen from a retired detective by a cloned investment firm.
Nationwide deserves the spotlight for failing to protect, and refusing to refund, a pensioner’s £70,000 life savings, stolen in a similarly sophisticated scam. It finally offered to refund her a year later following contact from the Financial Ombudsman Service.