TOM UTLEY: There’s a special place in hell for insurance firms 


There are pickpockets, petty thieves and wide-boy conmen. Then there are bank robbers, serial fraudsters and international money launderers.

Finally, at the very bottom of this hellish pit of iniquity, you’ll find the country’s big‑name insurance companies.

How they must gloat as they exploit reputations for integrity, built up decades ago when you could still find honest folk in the City, to rake in literally billions of pounds from unsuspecting souls foolish enough to trust them.

In a resounding victory for this paper — though God knows why it has taken so long — the watchdog announced on Tuesday that in future, insurers will not be allowed to charge existing policyholders more than new ones [File photo]

As you will have gathered, I write with some feeling, since I am among those countless gullible innocents who have bitter personal experience of being fleeced and mucked about by these firms, while being ruthlessly punished for my loyalty.

No underhand tactic is too base for them. Indeed, even customers with the energy to shop around for the best deals (personally, I leave these matters to Mrs U) have found endless obstacles put in their way when they’ve tried to switch.

Exploitative

As the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has found, some insurers make it harder for people to take their custom elsewhere by deliberately keeping them on hold for an eternity when they telephone to cancel automatic renewals.

Meanwhile, internet-savvy customers who flit regularly from one firm to another are often flagged and denied the best deals. 

Thus, it is not only those who are too busy, too trusting, too baffled by technology or — like me — too lazy to go to the trouble of switching, who are made to suffer. Against firms as unscrupulous as these, nobody can win.

I, therefore, rejoice over this week’s news that, after a decade of dogged campaigning by Money Mail, the FCA is at long last moving to outlaw at least some of the industry’s sharp practices.

In a resounding victory for this paper — though God knows why it has taken so long — the watchdog announced on Tuesday that in future, insurers will not be allowed to charge existing policyholders more than new ones.

Thus, it hopes to put an end to the firms’ favourite scam of luring newcomers in with attractive-sounding deals, before surreptitiously cranking up their premiums to extortionate levels as time passes, trusting that millions like me won’t trouble to keep checking what’s happening to our direct debits as the years go by.

How they must gloat as they exploit reputations for integrity, built up decades ago when you could still find honest folk in the City, to rake in literally billions of pounds from unsuspecting souls foolish enough to trust them [File photo]

How they must gloat as they exploit reputations for integrity, built up decades ago when you could still find honest folk in the City, to rake in literally billions of pounds from unsuspecting souls foolish enough to trust them [File photo]

For until now, the longer we’ve remained loyal — and some ten million of us have stayed with the same provider for more than five years — the more mercilessly we’ve been fleeced.

Indeed, the FCA finds that such ‘complex and opaque pricing practices’ are costing some six million households an average of £200 extra each year.

To the insurers’ deep shame (or it would be, if they were capable of such a feeling), as many as a third of those they routinely overcharge for cover are vulnerable, elderly or low paid. But then, who cares about decency or fair dealing, when the pickings are rich? 

So vastly rich, if the FCA’s calculations are to be believed, that the proposed ban on differential treatment for new and existing policyholders will save us between £3.7 billion and £11 billion over ten years.

Well, here’s hoping. But welcome though this victory is, I won’t be cracking open the bubbly just yet. 

For isn’t there a strong risk that if the FCA is caught napping, as it so often is, the industry may yet turn this ban to its advantage — by simply scrapping the discounts for newcomers and overcharging everyone, without exception?

Certainly, my personal experience of insurers’ conduct doesn’t bode well for reform. Indeed, as long-suffering readers may remember, I wrote a column in this space a couple of years ago, just as the FCA was beginning its inquiry, describing my treatment by Thames Water’s insurance arm, HomeServe.

Punishing

The previous week, I had mentioned in passing that my annual premium for the cover HomeServe provided — leaking pipes, electrical faults, etc. — seemed a bit steep at £712.32.

Hardly was the ink dry on that page when, the next morning, a very friendly woman from the insurer’s press office got in touch, telling me that I needn’t be paying so much. 

Would I be interested, she wondered, in switching from the policy I’d had for years to the HomeServe Cover8 plan, which would cost me only £480 a year for more extensive cover than I had enjoyed up until then?

Well, I may be rubbish at maths, but even I could work out that £480 was a healthy £232.32 cheaper than £712.32. So, yes, I said, of course I’d switch — and she kindly arranged it for me.

Now, I hate to sound ungrateful. But as I mused at the time, why the hell hadn’t HomeServe told this loyal customer earlier that it had a much better deal on offer, instead of allowing me to go on paying over the odds, year after year?

Call me a wizened old cynic, but I concluded that if I didn’t happen to be a columnist for a top-selling national newspaper, HomeServe would have gone on overcharging me until the cows came home. 

Or did this very nice press officer spend all her days ringing round long‑standing customers, in every walk of life, alerting them to the best deals on offer? Somehow I doubt it.

There’s a sequel to this saga, which I’ll reveal in a moment. But before I do, let me observe that punishing loyalty is far from the only vice of this most grasping of industries.

Take the occasion in 2014, which rankles to this day, when Mrs U parked our car outside the local Tesco. Stepping out, she noticed that a fraction of an inch of the rear tyre was resting on a yellow line. 

So she climbed in again and edged the car forward a couple of millimetres, until it gently kissed the rear bumper of the London taxi parked in front.

There was no damage whatsoever — not even the faintest mark, let alone a dent. Yet when she finished her shopping, she returned to find the taxi driver waiting for her in triumph. He had taken a photograph of the touching bumpers, he said, and would be claiming for the damage.

He then insisted on swapping details (though the phone number he gave later turned out to be unobtainable).

Grasping

She told him not to be silly. As she was later to explain to our insurers, there wasn’t any damage at all. Yet as far as we can gather, the company made not the slightest attempt to check out the taxi-driver’s fraudulent claim.

The next thing we knew, our insurance renewal papers arrived. Our premium had shot up from £278.78 the previous year to a blistering £708.08!

Certainly, my personal experience of insurers¿ conduct doesn¿t bode well for reform. Indeed, as long-suffering readers may remember, I wrote a column in this space a couple of years ago, just as the FCA was beginning its inquiry, describing my treatment by Thames Water¿s insurance arm, HomeServe

Certainly, my personal experience of insurers’ conduct doesn’t bode well for reform. Indeed, as long-suffering readers may remember, I wrote a column in this space a couple of years ago, just as the FCA was beginning its inquiry, describing my treatment by Thames Water’s insurance arm, HomeServe

When my wife rang the company to ask why, it turned out that the unspeakable taxi driver had claimed against our policy for an outrageous £428.40, to repair the non-existent ‘damage’ — thus robbing us of our no-claims bonus.

Our insurer gave us a choice: either pay the increased premium, or recover my lost bonus by settling the fraudster’s claim out of my own pocket — something I was damned if I would do. It was win-win for the insurance company and the fraudster; lose-lose for me and Mrs U.

And now yet another insurer is giving us hell. This time, it’s the people at Petplan, who are demanding to see our beloved rescue dog’s full medical history before they’ll cough up the £300-odd for her allergy treatment. 

Well, I can’t find her notes anywhere. But wasn’t the time to insist on seeing them before they started charging me annual premiums of £235.10, rather than after I’d made my first claim?

But I promised to reveal the sequel to my HomeServe woes. As I sat down to write this column yesterday, I decided to check what had happened to my annual premium since the nice lady in the press office arranged that bargain £480 deal for me just two years ago. I see that it now stands at £831.84.

But my woes are as nothing beside those of people whose holidays have been wrecked by Covid — and businesses that face ruin — while their insurers refuse to honour their obligations.

Enough to say that the FCA has an awful lot more work to do before it can claim to have guaranteed fair treatment for all.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk