Consumer watchdog deals with 10,000 personal finance complaints
PROBLEMS with financial services dwarf all other complaints received by the National Consumer Agency.
The NCA received almost 10,000 complaints and queries about personal finances last year and over a third of these related to arrears and other issues with credit cards, mortgages and other loans.
Consumers also reported a large number of problems with bank accounts and charges, foreign exchange and insurance.
New NCA chief executive Karen O'Leary said that around 58,000 consumers contacted them by phone or email last year to make complaints and seek advice on their rights.
Around 3,000 of the problems reported are serious enough to warrant further investigation or enforcement action by the NCA, she said in an interview with the Irish Independent on her new role.
Personal financial services outweigh every other area – accounting for 17pc of all contacts, with arrears difficulties, loan agreements and rates and direct debits all cropping up time and time again.
The complexity of the products causing difficulties meant the agency recently got rare Department of Finance approval to recruit 10 more specialist staff.
"We made a very good business case that we needed 10 new permanent experts, but I was expecting further horse-trading in the current climate so I nearly fell off my chair when we got approval," she said.
Ms O'Leary has been director of the NCA's Public Awareness and Financial Education Division since 2010 but took over as chief executive fully aware that her days as top dog are numbered.
That's because the merger with the Competition Authority (CA) – first proposed in 2008 – is winging its way through the system with legislation still on the drawing board.
When it does happen the new body – likely to be called the Consumer Protection and Competition Agency – will be headed up by CA chairman Isolde Goggin, with the NCA chief playing second fiddle.
"I have absolutely no problem with that because I took this job knowing that was going to happen," she said.
Ms O'Leary said that consumers were now much more willing to stand up for their rights and demand fair treatment than before the recession, but often they just needed details of how to do this.
"The bread-and-butter issue for us across all sectors is a sale of goods one – the right to get what you paid for. Often what we need to do is simply equip consumers with the information and the tactics to go back to a retailer and get the remedy themselves," she said.