Helping readers on the consumer desk: ‘We’re canaries in the coalmine’ | MembershipDecember 6, 2021
In early October, the Guardian’s consumer desk totted up how many pounds’ worth of fraud had been reported to us by readers over the summer, and were horrified to find that it was in excess of £1m.
This year we have been inundated with letters from readers who have been unfortunate enough to be caught up in all kinds of fraud – amplified and complicated by the pandemic – and asking for our help. We have seen everything: from dating scams to people using the Covid-related boom in online shopping to catch others out with fake delivery texts, and pension frauds using fake websites.
We offered advice to people on how to claim refunds and, with the help of a guest appearance by my cat, looked at how easy it is to give away valuable information to fraudsters online. The devastation scams causes victims goes beyond financial loss, and we have tried to reflect this in our coverage. Sadly, even with our intervention, people do not always get back their money. But we hope by highlighting these stories we can at least help other people be alert to the danger.
The hundreds of letters we get from readers every week lie at the heart of our operation. This correspondence makes us the canaries in the coalmine – if something is going wrong somewhere, then we are often among the first to know. Back in January, we started to hear from people who had been hit with unexpected customs bills on goods they had ordered from the EU post-Brexit. Despite the promise of tariff-free trade, it was becoming apparent that our online shopping had become more costly.
Our experts alerted people to the new rules, explained the complexities of the post-Brexit tax situation, and even got involved in a few cases. In March, Miles Brignall took on the case of a cyclist who was facing an unexpected £2,000 bill to receive a bike imported from Poland, or a £1,500 bill to return it. With Miles’s help, the bill to keep the bike was adjusted down to £1,000 – a welcome result for a reader who had described their situation as Kafkaesque.
Anna Tims uncovered further Brexit fallout. After warning last year that problems could arise from asking EU citizens to use a digital system to prove they had right to remain in the UK, she followed up the cases of some of those affected. In June, she revealed how women were being caught out by a glitch which meant the wrong surname would show on the system; then in September she revealed problems arising from a technical anomaly for people changing their status.
But the big problems for readers this year centred around Covid and the myriad consumer issues associated with it. Just 12 days into the new year we reported on how the private companies offering Covid tests for travellers were failing to deliver results in time for travellers, and we received more and more emails on the subject as people started to travel…