Or, how ombudsman is my favourite Swedish loanword.

Back last year, the estate agent through which I rent my current flat gave me the wrong bank details. The account number was correct, but the sort code was off by one on the last digit. I shouldn’t be surprised. Expecting competence from an estate agent is like expecting bipedalism of a dog: it’s an unnatural state seldom seen in nature.

I transferred some money to their account and set up a standing order from the following month. When the standing order came around, the money was returned to me instantly and the standing order cancelled. I received a letter in the post explaining the situation.

But what about the initial transfer? What had happened to that? I asked the agent whether they’d received it. They didn’t reply. A few months later, they phoned me up threatening to evict me for not paying, so I paid it again.

For the next seven months, I struggled to get my money back. I called my bank (Halifax). They told me different things on different occasions:

  • It was none of their concern because it was I who had typed the incorrect details.
  • The clearing department would sort it out.
  • I should contact the receiving bank (Lloyds)

At one stage, I received a letter promising to look into it, and asking for more details. My reply went unanswered.

I wrote to Lloyds. They didn’t reply. I called them, and they told me that I would have to talk to Halifax, who would initiate the recall procedure. Halifax told me to talk to Lloyds, who told me to talk to Halifax, who told me …

Usque ad nauseam.

In search of a way out of the impasse, I contacted the Financial Ombudsman Service for advice. They told me that it was Halifax’s responsibility.

Armed with this opinion, I went back to Halifax, but, yet again, they were disinclined to assist.

I returned to the Financial Ombudsman, who wrote a letter to Halifax on my behalf.

In contrast to their dismissive attitude to their own customers, it appears that banks actually pay attention to the Ombudsman. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Halifax. For the next few days, I enjoyed a personal service from a person at Halifax’s customer service department, who looked into my situation and called me daily with updates. She spoke to Lloyds and worked out where the money had gone.

It turns out that the money had been deposited into the correct account in the first place. Although the branch code had been wrong, Lloyds had found the correct recipient through the name and account number.

All this stress and hassle for nothing! The estate agent had the money all along! Getting money back from an estate agent is harder than prying the Ring out of Gollum’s hands, but with this evidence I was able to do so.

In all this, the banks had done a pretty good job of moving the money around. However, they did a terrible job of providing assistance when I needed it. Halifax’s consistent position—that they would not help me because the error was not their responsibility—left me frustrated and deeply resentful. The fact that they were able to assist me once I had involved the ombudsman makes me wonder why their default position is so bloody-mindedly unhelpful.

I’d strongly recommend the ombudsman service to anyone else who has been given the run-around by their bank. It seems to get results.