How to complain about your credit card

By Marianne Curphey

If you think your credit card company has treated you unfairly, you're far from alone. Nearly 19,000 people complained to the Financial Ombudsman Service about credit cards in the year ending of April 2012 -- and that represents just 6% of the complaints made about financial services a whole. 

So what should you do to make sure your complaint is heard above all the noise? Follow these steps.

First, contact your credit card provider
Using the Financial Ombudsman Service is no guarantee that your claim will be victorious. In fact, since 2009, the number of Financial Ombudsman cases in which individuals won against credit card providers has been falling, even though the overall number of cases has risen slightly. Last year, just over half of all disputes were resolved in favour of the customer, compared with 68% in 2009. credit-card-complaint

So the most effective way to resolve your complaint may be by avoiding government avenues altogether.

"If people feel they have grounds for a complaint, they should contact their credit card provider in the first instance and give them the chance to put things right," says Sarah Brooks, director of financial services at Consumer Focus.

Reach out to your card issuer in writing. Write to the customer services department of the company --  this will either be listed on your credit card statement or on the company's website. Set out the details of your complaint and how you would like it resolved. Make sure your letter or email sets out clearly what the problem is, and that it includes your name, contact details, account or policy numbers, when the account was opened and on what date the problem occurred.

Keeping records is vital.

"If you have a dispute, you should record every contact with them and take details of who you spoke to and when," says Una Farrell, spokeswoman for the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS). "If possible, try to deal with the complaint via email so that you have a written record of all the contact with the company."

Don't send original documents through the post - either send photocopies or scan documents and send them as PDFs. If you contact the issuer by phone, write down the date and time you called. Make a note of the name of the person you spoke to, and ask for direct dial number in case you need to call them back. This will help you avoid navigating the switchboard options again and waiting for ages in a telephone queue.

If you are unhappy with the response, contact the Financial Ombudsman:
Allow eight weeks for your issuer to resolve your complaint before you take it further.

"If the customer is unhappy with the reply or the complaint has not been dealt with within eight weeks, they should then take their case to the Financial Ombudsman Service for an independent assessment," Brooks says.

Set up by parliament, the Financial Ombudsman Service acts as a mediator between unhappy consumers and businesses. Consumers can contact the service by phone (0300 123 9 123 or 0800 023 4567), email (complaint.info@financial-ombudsman.org.uk) or by filling out an online complaint form.

Complaining via the Financial Ombudsman Service is free, so don't be swayed into paying a third party to help you pursue your complaint.

If the Financial Ombudsman Service decides your complaint is worthy of investigation, it may take between six and nine months to reach a ruling.

"Unfortunately, complaining often takes persistence, but we would urge consumers to stick with it if they feel they have been treated unfairly," Brooks says.

During that time, the Financial Ombudsman service will contact the credit card provider on your behalf and try to establish what went wrong. Its ruling will be binding on the provider.

If you are not satisfied with the Ombudsman's ruling, you can take independent legal action against the provider, although it will cost you money.

Could credit card providers do more?
Could credit card issuers be doing more to ensure consumers don't have to turn to the government for help? Brooks thinks so.

Although consumers have a responsibility to prevent misunderstandings by remaining abreast of their issuers' terms, there is much that issuers can do. For example, Brooks says, they should give customers fair notice before raising interest rates.

"We would also expect credit card providers to treat customers fairly at all times, especially if they are struggling with repaying their debts," Brooks says. "Consumers also need plenty of warning before credit limits and interest rates are changed."

Staying informed can help consumers be proactive -- instead of simply reacting to unwelcome changes after the fact by filing complaints. If, for example, your credit card company notifies you that it is raising your interest rate, Farrell points out, you can simply repay your balance and cancel the card. That way, your card issuer will hear your message of dissatisfaction loud and clear, you won't have to pay one pence of higher interest and you can avoid the complaints process altogether.

See related: How to negotiate a lower credit card APR, How to fix mistakes in your credit report

Published: 19 July 2012