With payment protection insurance (PPI) on loans and credit cards hitting the financial headlines recently, tens of thousands of people who were mis-sold policies from their banks have instigated claims for refunds. The banks have finally admitted their methods of selling the policies were flawed: many people didn’t even know they had taken out PPI policies while others either didn’t realise the policies were optional, or were actually ineligible for payouts in the event of a claim. Does the banks’ admission of culpability indicate a long-overdue show of humility; a mea culpa to be followed by refunds?
Not if my experience is anything to go by. I qualified as a doctor in 1989 and received a credit card from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). In those days we worked 130 hour weeks as junior doctors, so I didn’t read the small print as thoroughly as I should have. Seemingly, there was a tiny box which had to be ticked by the client to opt out of PPI. (This way of finagling people into buying hidden extras is, unsurprisingly, now illegal as well as being immoral– all customers now have to actively tick if they want a policy, not if they don’t. Back then it was merely immoral – not generally a consideration that bothers banks). I admit I was stupid not to look at my credit card statements more carefully. But when you’re working up to 130 hour weeks, you’re living in an adrenalized haze. I lived, ate and – rarely – slept work. The day started at 8am on the wards, and, if you were lucky, you finished at 7pm and were home by 8pm one or two nights in three. The other one or two nights in three you didn’t come home at all, but worked on all night. One in two or three weekends started at 8am on Friday morning on the wards and ended there at 7pm on Monday night, with an hour or two in a bed in the hospital if you were lucky. This is what doctors did then and I’m not moaning about it; it was the lifestyle we signed up to, and it created its own buzz and held its own rewards (not fiscal – at that time the 90 hours a week we did over and above the standard 40 was paid at one third normal rates, ie a lower hourly rate than the cleaners or porters.) Still, there was light at the end of the very long tunnel, I loved my job and did it willingly. Which is more than can be said for paying PPI.
I’m merely mentioning this by way of explanation as to how I can have been so silly as to never look at my credit card details. Frankly, as long as I didn’t receive a letter from the bank telling me I was overdrawn, I didn’t need to look at my statements. The full amount was automatically debited from my account every month.
It wasn’t until around eleven years later that I looked at my statements. By this time I was a consultant anaesthetist, the pay was great, the hours were slightly better than they had been, there were no more post-grad exams to swot for (there had been five during training – two parts of MRCP and three of FRCA, each taking years of swotting time, on top of the 130 – 100 hr weeks), and free time was easier to come by. I noticed that at the end of each statement, I was being charged an amount which depended on how much I had spent on my credit card and was called cardholder protection plan.
I wrote to RBS asking what this was, enclosing many credit card statements, and was told I had automatically been signed up for PPI when I received my credit card. I wrote back and asked for a refund, saying I had never given my permission for this and it had never even been mentioned when I received my credit card. Neither verbal not signed consent had been received. RBS was bullish and refused to refund my money. I wrote several times but they absolutely refused to refund me. They also failed to return my credit card statements. The replies from them were defensive and final, so after a flurried exchange of several letters, I had to leave the matter. I had other things on my mind. I had been diagnosed in 1999 with scleroderma, a rare auto-immune illness. Between 1999 and 2006, this led to around twenty operations. I lost the tips of fingers and toes and most of my right (dominant) thumb due to gangrene. I underwent five lumbar sympathectomies, a bilateral (both sides) thoracic sympathectomy, bilateral ulnar and radial sympathectomies, digital (finger) sympathectomies, and other procedures to try and improve blood flow in my peripheries. I lost part of my large bowel to gangrene due to a twist (volvulus) in the bowel, which caused part of the bowel to go gangrenous and have be removed. I then had four or five admissions with obstruction of the bowel and underwent procedures (scopes, etc) to alleviate it, culminating in another large bowel op to cut adhesions which had formed and were causing obstruction. Then, 9 mths later, I developed gangrene of the remaining large bowel due to obstruction of the main artery supplying it, so I had to have a third major bowel op with the removal of all but a few inches of my large bowel. After the first two major bowel ops, my recovery was beset by the complications that arise when a patient is debilitated – I had pressure sores, infected central lines, MRSA, three stones weight loss, wound healing problems, and so on. I had involvement of my blood vessels, coagulation, muscle, skin, gut, lungs and kidney. Over the next ten years, I underwent every form of invasive procedure you can think of, involving every bodily orifice – colonoscope, barium meal, barium follow through, gastrografin meal, barium enema, sigmoidoscope. I was irradiated with x rays, CT scans, renograms, angiograms, ventilation-perfusion scans, intravenous pyelograms, radionuclear studies, and the various barium and gastrografin studies. I underwent several operations for insertion of tunnelled indwelling lines, three for Coleman procedures to try and alleviate the facial features of the disease, and many others. I was an in-patient in a London hospital, hundreds of miles from my home in Glasgow, for 5 weeks with septicaemia due to the gangrenous fingers, and I was an in-patient on so many Glasgow hospital wards that I kept a suitcase packed by my door, like a woman awaiting labour. Every month or so I would develop excruciating ulcers on my fingertips or elsewhere; these would often need antibiotics and would last for many months. Often, the infection would penetrate to the bone in my hands, requiring intra-venous antibiotics, which would necessitate daily trips to hospital for weeks. I was on eighteen regular medicines including one unpleasant intravenous drug that required admission to hospital every second week for three days from 9am to 5pm. I’m still on all these medicines, still spend every second week in hospital for 3 days, Mon, Wed and Fri, 9am -5pm, and still prone to the ulcers and infections. I attend more than twelve regular clinics, what with follow-ups for rheumatology in Glasgow, rheumatology in London, dermatology in London, respiratory clinic, regular heart scans, regular lung function tests, podiatry, occasional renal scans/clinics, occasional cardiac clinics, occasional vascular clinics, and so on.
Around 2006 or 2007, I thought again about the approximate £1600 I had paid over eleven years for PPI. I was by this time retired – I had had to take early retirement on sickness grounds because I had lost several fingertips and my thumb, and because my hands were curled into contractures, so I couldn’t practice. Yet ironically, I wouldn’t have been eligible for payout on the PPI had I still been on it, because I had a small NHS pension, so my credit card bills could still be paid (albeit I was spending less.) I wrote again to RBS. Incredibly, they blusteringly denied I had ever had PPI. I have the letter from a Gareth Gerrelli stating that I had never had PPI. When I wrote back enclosing my credit card statement showing I’d paid PPI, he sent a letter saying ‘I am disappointed to learn that you are unhappy with my original response.’ Er – they had told me something that was frankly and unequivocally wrong; that denied what I had been telling them for years and my credit card statements confirmed, and they were *disappointed* that I was unhappy? I wrote back to them. Without apologising, they then said too much time had elapsed since I took out the policy. I told them I had complained immediately I found out, back in 2000, although I didn’t have the paperwork of that correspondence anymore. In almost crowing terms they told me that since I had no evidence of this prior complaint, they were unable to help me. More letters from me couldn’t make them budge. Infuriated, I applied to the Financial Ombudsman. Due to a high volume of demand, they were unable to look at my case for almost a year, but when they did, the FSA employee dealing with me seemed in a hurry to get my case over and done with, and dismissed my case, echoing what the bank had said, ie that I should have complained earlier. I pointed out that the bank saying I hadn’t complained in 2000 was untrue – after all, they had also denied I had ever had PPI! But the employee was possibly swamped with cases and unwilling to help further. Unsatisfied, I asked for a review by a senior member. In the end, a decent man from the Ombudsman wrote to me. He said that unfortunately, even taking my illness into consideration, because I had not complained within 6 years of discovering I had PPI, they could not do any more.
When PPI hit the headlines again a few weeks ago, I phoned the FSA, but was told that cases that have been to the Ombudsman can’t be reviewed or appealed. The advisor was sympathetic, and suggested approaching RBS again, so I wrote to RBS again. After several months, I received a letter from a Muhammad Saleem saying he had finished his investigation. ‘At last!’ I thought with a giant sigh of relief, exhausted by an eleven year battle for what was legally mine. The next sentence made my jaw hang: he told me I had never paid PPI. I felt like I had been on a hamster wheel for eleven years. I phoned several times trying to get through and finally explained the situation for the nth time. I was told I could not scan my documents of prrof and send them in, I would have to send them snail mail, thus guaranteeing yet another wait of months for a token (and probably procrastinatory or untrue) response.
I phoned the PPI line to discuss my situation. I explained the complex case only to be told that I would have to write in. I phoned the RBS press dept and spoke to a polite man called Omar Mohammed who advised me to write to the other press officer Kath Allen. I did so, long detailed letters. Kath Allen phoned me several days later to say she had contacted the PPI dept and the PPI dept had told her that I had complained about the ‘wrong’ credit card, and that no PPI had been applied to my credit card issued in 2000, so I had ‘made a mistake’. They also said that if I wished to, I could ‘put in a whole new complaint’. However, I have always been clear that the card on which PPI was paid was the one from 1989 – 2000, and have sent in credit card statements to prove it. So I asked if I could e mail the article plus scans to them but Ms Allen said no, I would have to write to the PPI dept by postal mail.
In the end, my case was looked at again but was refused because although I have statements showing PPI was paid in 1999 and 2000, I couldn’t prove it had been paid non stop since 1989. But I DO have proof of a sort – one of the credit card statements shows doodles from the day I received it , finally noticed I had been royally ripped off for eleven years, and phoned RBS’s credit card line, complaining about it. I phoned several times and was told to phone back to speak to a supervisor on several occasions. And here’s my proof that I made those agitated, furious phone calls - from the second or so time I phoned, I took down the first name, and sometimes the first and second names, of the person I spoke to. There are angry scribbles in my writing to the effect of FULL refund for ALL years paid. And I had the same credit card with the same contract for 11 years. I never had it stolen in that period, so I would never have had cause to enter a new and different contract. Finally, after my phone calls, I was sent a new credit card without PPI. But somehow, this doesn’t count as proof that I paid PPI for all those years.
I hit the end of the road. I also hit the road – soon after writing this piece, I fell inelegantly on a pavement in France and broke my kneecap. I had two operations and two hospital stays in France followed by several hospital stays in Scotland with bone infection, for which I received a total of 8 weeks intra- venous antibiotics and many more weeks of oral ones. I developed a large knee ulcer which still hasn’t healed seven months later. So I have no energy or will to pursue this matter again. But I hope readers will take note and take this into account when deciding where to open a bank account. Oh, and they pay less than half a percent interest on their current accounts too – what’s not to hate?
So the contrition put on for the press was just a facade. If RBS will procrastinate, lie, spout untruths, and be obstructive to someone like me with the tenacity to keep going for eleven years, what hope for the elderly or the frail?
I’m left thinking that, despite their best intentions, the Financial Ombudsman is not so much toothless as completely impotent, and that the roaring, money-gobbling, selfish beast that is the banking industry is not going to change its spots anytime soon.