31 Mar 2020

Citizens Advice Consumer update March 2020

Consumer update March 2020: Covid-19 (1)

We will be using this email update service to provide regular news about Covid-19 related issues. Please forward this email to any colleagues who may not receive it. They can sign up here.

If you would like to receive updates in other advice areas you can use the link at the bottom of this email to update your own subscription.  We cover housing, welfare benefits, employment, debt and consumer.

Colleagues in Local Citizens Advice offices can also access our immigration and nationality advice and Help to Claim workplace groups.

The information in this update was correct when it was published on the 26 March.

 

 

Consumer service 
The consumer service remains open, however, like many services we’re making several changes to how it operates given the lower adviser numbers than usual. Volumes have only decreased marginally but the time it takes to receive a response may be significantly longer than usual.  We’re working with other teams to expand the public advice on the Citizens Advice website to lighten the load on the consumer service advisers.

Scams
Events such as the recent floods and the coronavirus outbreak, sadly, bring out the scammers and fraudsters. They will do almost anything to prey on vulnerable people and we are all in that situation at the moment.  Whether worrying about jobs, looking after children, protecting loved ones or just trying to stay on top of things at this difficult time.

National Trading Standards (NTS) issued a summary of scams seen so far – NTS: beware of COVID-19 scams. The message is to stop and think before responding to something, which might at first sight appear to be trying to help at a time of crisis.  Scams come in all shapes and sizes, at the doorstep, online and over the phone (cold calling) – check if something might be a scam.

We should all be initially wary of anyone knocking on the door, calling out of the blue or sending emails and pop up adverts.  DON’T click on unknown links, DON’T feel you have to respond to someone on the phone and DO check who is calling at your house – only use trusted sources of information and help. Take a few minutes to think it through and do a few checks as this might save money and emotional distress in the long run.

Every UK mobile subscriber should receive a text message from the government on 24th March, telling them to stay at home and linking to the new restrictions – this one is not a scam.

 

 Alphabetical list of topics covered

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
Some ADR services have said they’re temporarily unable to take on new cases and have reduced access to some channels of communication:

·  Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) – the phone lines are open, but with limited availability, between 12pm and 3pm. Please only call them if you are facing severe ill-health or financial hardship. They are not currently able to receive post at their office. Please do not send them anything by post. It is very likely that any post sent to them after 18 March 2020 may not reach them.  As Royal Mail are unable to deliver post to the FOS office, they’ve told them that they’ll hold it for 28 days. If after 28 days the office remains closed and FOS hasn’t been able to collect their post from Royal Mail, they will look to return it to the sender. If a client has sent FOS a complaint form by post, they will need to resubmit this either by email or using the online form. It will take FOS longer than they’d like to resolve complaints.

·  Local Government and Healthcare Ombudsman (LGSCO) – central contact number (0300 061 0614) and online complaint submission form  temporarily suspended from Wednesday 18 March. LGSCO is not currently taking on new complaints.

·  Ombudsman services – are currently not affected, which includes the Energy Ombudsman

·  CISAS – delays in conducting cases are expected and ability to process any post has been reduced

·  Property Ombudsman – please contact by email or online form.  All cases within the system will be given a three-week extension of time. New complaints will continue to be accepted.

·  Property Redress Scheme – could take a bit longer than usual to respond or provide an update on cases.  The best way to contact is email. Please limit the sending of physical post as much as possible as there is likely to be a delay in the processing and uploading of any documents. If possible, please send any documents by email.

·  POSTRS – delays in conducting cases are expected and ability to process any post has been reduced

·  Transport Focus – tool to check ticket refund availability

·  Consumer Council for Water – changing working practices and ask for contact to be via online form

Business closures
Government Guidance on further businesses and premises to close – Restaurants and cafes can remain open to do food deliveries and takeaways but must not serve food for consumption on the premises.  Closures will be monitored by Environmental Health and Trading Standards so non-compliance can be reported to trading standards

Contactless payments
Contactless limit for in-store transactions will increase from £30 to £45 from 1 April 2020 to reduce the need for physical contact

Energy (gas and electricity)

·  Prepayment meters – the Government issued this press release on 19th March setting out emergency measures agreed with the energy industry. Clients who have an old style prepayment meter (PPM) need to contact their supplier and they might be sent pre-loaded cards in the post. Clients with a ‘Smart’ PPM can top up online or by phone

·  Disconnection – please see the Debt Update for information about dealing with debt on prepayment meters and advice about disconnection

·  Extra Help Unit – The Extra Help Unit (EHU) is still operating but cannot be contacted directly by clients or LCA advisers.  Referrals must be made using the consumer service energy advisers. The current adviser phone lines are closed but consumer service advisers can contact the EHU by hangout.

·  Fuel vouchers – there are rumours circulating on Facebook that Citizens Advice and or energy suppliers have fuel vouchers to give people. This is not correct. We are getting back to the suppliers who have been mentioned.  Of the 20 queries to the consumer service on Friday 20th March, 8 asked about the fuel vouchers, from 3 different suppliers

·  Rumours of £100 government support – seen on social media, the rumour tells consumers to contact their supplier to claim £100 support for gas and £100 support for electricity. It’s not true, and contacting suppliers unnecessarily could stop people who really need to contact their supplier from being able to do so.

·  Appointments – consumers may start seeing smart meter & non-urgent appointments being cancelled. They should talk to their supplier if they are concerned. For urgent appointments, to deal with a power cut or gas leak, self isolating customers may be asked to close themselves into another room whilst the engineer is working, or maintain a 2 meter distance away from them

·  Usage – people may see an increase in their energy usage due to being at home more than usual.  They should try and prepare for a possible increase in their bill. A supplier has estimated this could be between 13%-32% of their monthly bill.  For an average household this could be an increase of £20 a month. Customers without smart meters should give the supplier a manual reading before their next bill is due to make sure they get an accurate bill

·  Self isolating customers – should consider signing up to their supplier’s Priority Services Register, especially if they have received an “at risk” letter from the NHS. Getting extra support from your energy supplier

Events
Getting a refund on an event ticket

Gyms
Gyms are in the list of premises that have been told to close by the government.  They are not likely to be closed indefinitely so some may ask customers not to cancel but add on some time at the end.  The terms and conditions (T&C) can be checked to see what is being offered, or they may have published online comms or social media.  Some may suspend Direct Debit payments. Some are offering certain services online, such as classes using a platform such as Zoom. Rolling contracts may be cancellable, for example, where it’s not fixed for a year, but is on a month-to-month basis, with payments payable monthly and only a month’s notice to cancel.

MOTs
Government guidance on the extension of MOT due dates from 30 March. This covers cars, motorcycles and light vans and states that the due date will be extended by six months. Vehicles must still be kept safe to drive or fines, driving bans and penalty points can still be imposed, even if the MOT expiry date has been extended.

There’s separate guidance about what to do if your MOT due date is up to and including 29 March 2020. There are different temporary rules for MOT tests for lorries, buses and trailers.

Nurseries
Department for Education Guidance on closure of educational settings: information for parents and carers [20/03/2020] – See para1.13 Why is my nursery telling me that they will continue to charge me during coronavirus-related closures?

Post
Public Health England (PHE) has advised that people receiving parcels are not at risk of contracting the coronavirus, these types of viruses don’t survive long on objects, such as letters or parcels. This complements the highly publicised guidance from PHE for people to wash their hands more often than usual using soap and hot water. Royal Mail has introduced steps to reduce the amount of contact between delivery staff and the public.

Tradespeople
Government guidance on work carried out in people’s homes
Tradespeople carrying out repairs and maintenance, can continue, provided that the tradesperson is well and has no symptoms. It will be important to ensure that PHE guidelines, including maintaining a two metre distance from any household occupants, are followed to ensure everyone’s safety. No work should be carried out in any household which is isolating or where an individual is being shielded, unless it is to remedy a direct risk to the safety of the household, such as emergency plumbing or repairs, and where the tradesperson is willing to do so. In such cases, PHE can provide advice to tradespeople and households. No work should be carried out by a tradesperson who has coronavirus symptoms, however mild.

Travel and holidays
The FCO has advised against all but essential travel from 17th March for 30 days.  This period may well be extended. While travel is advised against, and in countries where it applies (all at the moment, but this may change), many travel providers are offering rescheduling or refunds.  This is unlikely to extend to periods beyond the current restrictions. There are currently no grounds to claim full free refunds or replacement arrangements when travel or package holidays fall outside these periods. Insurance is unlikely to cover worrying about whether plans will go ahead when travel has not yet been restricted.

Useful websites include:

ABTA Coronavirus advice for customers: Q&A

Citizens Advice Adviser article on passenger rights for flight delays and cancellations

EU air passenger rights

Civil Aviation Authority – resolving travel problems

Citizens Advice public advice: claim compensation if your flight’s delayed or cancelled

Citizens Advice public advice: cancelling a package holiday 

Citizens Advice public advice: claim compensation for a holiday

ABTA Coronavirus advice for customers: Q&A

Association of British Insurance: Coronavirus Q&A

Weddings
Weddings aren’t allowed to take place from 23 March 2020. This doesn’t necessarily mean weddings have to be cancelled. Consumers should talk to their supplier(s) about arranging a new date. Making a list of everyone they need to speak to, including guests, is a good idea. If they’ve got wedding insurance, the T&C should be checked to see what cover is provided.

If a consumer wants to cancel an arrangement with a supplier(s) and their T&C mean they’ll lose their deposit or be charged a cancellation fee, it might not be fair. This advisory letter from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to wedding and event venue providers gives examples of terms less likely to be fair.

If a honeymoon has already been booked, traveller rights are the same as for other holidays.  What to do varies, depending on whether a package was booked or elements, such as travel and accommodation, were booked separately.

 We are also looking at what additional advice resources that can support advisers at this time – if you have any suggestions or resources that you need please email us at expertadvicesupport@citizensadvice.org.uk

We are working to update our online content to cover Covid-19 related advice issues. If there is an emerging advice issue that you are seeing come up and our online content doesn’t cover it please let us know by emailing covid19.content@citizensadvice.org.uk

 

 Ask the experts 

 

Second tier advice is available to local Citizens Advice from the Expert Advice Team for housing, employment and benefits.

The consumer service is also available as a resource for local Citizens Advice if required.

 

 

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