Consumer lifelines: who to turn to if you’re in trouble

If you have problems with a product or service, be sure you know where to turn

Tue, Mar 19, 2013, 06:00

You bought a voucher online but it doesn’t work and you don’t know what to do. You’re the victim of skimming and are not sure if you’re entitled to your money back. You believe that you were mis-sold an investment product but your financial services provider isn’t listening. These are everyday issues we face but what can we do about it and who can help us?

Below are the organisations you may need to contact to register a complaint or look for compensation or redress, as well as advice on your consumer rights.

But, before you seek a third party for help, they will ask that you have already contacted the firm about whom you wish to register a complaint. For example, the Law Society will ask that you first contact the solicitor in question if you have a complaint about a legal service, copying the letter to the senior partner of the firm, while the Financial Ombudsman asks that you first follow your service provider’s internal complaints procedures.

Given the events of the past few years, many people are out of pocket as a result of a poor investment product, poor advice, or just poor service. While in most cases, the investor must shoulder the burden of a mis-placed decision, in some cases you may have a case against your service provider. Should you wish to do so, here are some of the avenues you might pursue:

Financial Services Ombudsman
Who can use the service?
Anyone who is a customer of a financial services organisation. Last year, more than 8,000 such complaints were made, up by 12 per cent on 2011.
What complaints are suitable?
Any complaint against a financial services institution.
What complaints aren’t?
If the complaint is more than six years old or has been the subject of legal proceedings. Any pension issues should be submitted to the Pensions Ombudsman.
Can I get recompense?
Yes, the Ombudsman may require an institution to compensate customers. Last year, some €1.7 million was awarded.
Can I find out who has been disciplined?
No. It has been an issue for some time, and shows no imminent sign of resolution. The Government recently expressed its desire to give the Ombudsman the powers to “name and shame”, but providing those powers is a matter for them and the legislation is still outstanding.
Is there an alternative?
If your complaint is not covered by the Ombudsman, it may be possible to bring a legal case against an institution or financial advisor. For example, a couple recently brought a case against a financial advisor and associated companies for putting their money, without consent, into risky investment vehicles. Similarly, solicitors have in the past put cases together representing groups of people.

Chartered Accountants Regulatory Board (CARB).
Who can use the service?
Anyone wishing to make a complaint against a chartered accountant.
Are there any other sanctions?
If the complaint is found to be serious enough, it will be referred to the Disciplinary Tribunal, which may exclude or suspend an accountant’s membership.
Can I find out who has been disciplined? Yes, CARB publishes a register with details of cases and penalties imposed.

The Law Society.
Who can use the service?
Anyone with a complaint against a solicitor.
What complaints are suitable?
Those about “inadequate” services or for misconduct by a solicitor. If you have been presented with an excessive bill, you can make a complaint, but note that this can only be done within five years.
What complaints aren’t?
Claims for compensation over €3,000; if you’re complaining about someone else’s solicitor; or if your complaint relates to how your case was presented in court.
Can you get recompense?
The Law Society may require the solicitor to waive or refund fees, as well as compensation of up to €3,000.
Any other sanctions?
The solicitor may be reprimanded and referred to a disciplinary tribunal which deals with allegations of misconduct, and offers compensation of up to €15,000.
Can I find out who has been disciplined?
Yes. The Law Society offers a searchable database.

Property Services Regulatory Authority.
Who can use the service?
Established in 2012, the PSRA will investigate complaints against estate agents.
What complaints aren’t suitable?
Those not made in good faith; those that are frivolous or vexatious; and those that are likely to be resolved by other methods.
What sanctions might be imposed?
If an estate agent is found to have engaged in improper conduct, the PSRA might revoke or suspend their licence, and impose a monetary sanction on them.

For consumer issues, the National Consumer Agency should be your first port of call. Its website ( has advice on a range of issues, or you can contact them directly on 1890 432 432. Below is some of its advice on areas you may not be aware of.

Unheard of just a few years ago, now Groupon, Living Social, Rewarding Times, GrabOne, etc, have become household names, as consumers become accustomed to availing of special offers by buying as part of an online bulk deal. But what are your rights if something goes wrong?

As always, the first step is to contact the company’s customer advice department. Failing this, you have the same rights as if you bought the product in a shop. So, if you buy a voucher for a product or service online, three key rules apply: the goods must be of “merchantable quality”; they must be fit for the purpose intended; and they must be as described on the website.

If they don’t meet these guidelines, you are within your rights to ask for a “repair, replacement, a reduction in the price you paid or a refund”.

If there is one contentious area in the current economic environment, it’s got to be vouchers. The fall-out from the recent collapse of HMV and its failure to honour vouchers is still fresh in many people’s minds.

When a store collapses, voucher holders become unsecured creditors, which means they are at the end of a long line of people looking to get their money back.

While it’s difficult to recommend you don’t buy vouchers from retail outlets – many of which depend on this influx of Christmas spending to survive – as another retail chain, Monsoon, makes its way to the examinership courts, it may be the most sensible option. If you do want to buy vouchers, opting for those from a shopping centre, or National Book Tokens, which can be spent in any book shop, may be the least risky option.

If you’re in the market for a relatively big-ticket item, it’s likely that you will pay a deposit for the goods before delivery. Doing so can cause difficulties however.

Firstly, if you change your mind, the vendor is not legally obliged to return your deposit. Secondly, there may be problems with a delivery date and if the vendor keeps pushing this out, you might want to cancel the order. While legally you will be entitled to a refund of your deposit, it doesn’t mean the vendor will comply – which means that you might have to pursue it in the Small Claims Court, if it doesn’t exceed €2,000, or via a solicitor if it’s for a larger amount.

Finally, and what is perhaps of most concern these days, if a shop goes out of business, you will find it very difficult to either get your deposit back, or the goods that you have ordered. As a result, you should always pay for a deposit – or indeed vouchers – with a credit card, as you might be entitled to a charge back. This is when a credit card provider reverses a transaction, therefore funding your account with the amount you would have otherwise lost.

While such incidents may be common-place these days, it doesn’t mean that you should accept skimming or a phone call from a so-called “boiler room”. You can take some action.

If you fear that you have been a victim of “skimming”, whereby someone has tampered with an ATM machine to allow them withdraw funds from your account, or stolen your credit card information, depending on your bank’s policy, you should be entitled to a full refund – provided of course that the bank can confirm fraudulent activity took place.

When shopping online, the use of 3D secure, which is an additional security feature and requires a special password linked to your credit or debit card, can help reduce these problems.

The Central Bank frequently issues warnings on unauthorised firms that are trying to do business in Ireland. If you’re concerned about someone that has contacted you, you can check with the Central Bank to find out if they are authorised or not (01 224 4000,

Remember, you will be entitled to no compensation from the Investor Compensation Scheme if you are a victim of dealings with an unauthorised firm. The Central Bank has most recently issued warnings against Lawrence James and Associates and Goff Private Equity. All warnings are listed on the Central Bank website.

You can also contact the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigations (01-6663777) or your local Garda station to report an incident of fraud.