Tony Hetherington is Financial Mail on Sunday’s ace investigator, fighting readers corners, revealing the truth that lies behind closed doors and winning victories for those who have been left out-of-pocket. Find out how to contact him below.
Ms L.H. writes: I booked a break in the Cotswolds through Sykes Cottages to celebrate my sister’s birthday.
On the second night, the carbon monoxide alarm sounded. We contacted the cottage owner, whose response was that it was probably a faulty monitor.
We called the emergency gas number and an engineer arrived. He advised that it was unsafe to remain, so we had to pack and drive home at midnight.
I asked Sykes Cottages for a refund and it replied that the owner had refused this.
Idyllic: But Ms H’s stay in Chipping Campden was ruined by a carbon monoxide alarm at her cottage
Tony Hetherington replies: This is a shocking tale. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. Just over a week ago, an inquest heard how a Burnley couple died after its fumes turned their Egyptian hotel room into a lethal gas chamber.
So who would gamble with their life when an alarm goes off? You did the right thing in getting out of the cottage and cutting short your break in Chipping Campden.
You also did the right thing when you called the emergency number. An engineer from Wales & West Utilities arrived very quickly and carried out his own checks. He gave you a full report and left a ‘Danger’ sign at the property.
But when you contacted Chester-based Sykes Cottages, which acts as a middleman in renting out cottages on behalf of their owners, its response was startling.
It told you that a later inspection by a different engineer decided the alarm probably went off because of fumes from the cottage’s open fire. The chimney was being swept and the alarm had been replaced. The response added: ‘Due to this case revolving around a health and safety matter, the owner will not be offering any compensation. As we can no longer assist with this matter, we will close the case file.’
Silent: Graham Donoghue, the boss of Sykes Cottages
Sykes Cottages had washed its hands of you, and for a reason bordering on the absurd, implying that customers renting cottages forfeited their rights if a property turned out to be dangerous.
I wanted to invite a comment from the boss of Sykes Cottages, Graham Donoghue, but I also wanted to see what the ultimate controller of the company had to say.
This involved wading through seven layers of companies and the people behind them before I got to the man at the top of the tree. He is venture capitalist Michael Risman, a former director of Just Eat.
I need not have bothered. Despite asking Sykes Cottages for comments from both men, neither of them responded. However, I also traced the actual owner of the Cotswold cottage, a woman named Sue who lives about 70 miles from Chipping Campden.
I asked whether it was fair to say that her advice about the alarm being faulty was just guesswork.
She did not answer the question, but she did tell me: ‘We did have British Gas out the very next day and they could find no problem. They did, however, replace the alarm that had gone off. All safety measures as required by law are in place.’
So, back to Sykes Cottages. A spokesman finally told me: ‘We were very sorry to hear of Ms H’s experience during her stay at Lanes Cottage.’ He added: ‘The owner has offered Ms H as a gesture of goodwill a full refund’.
There is a happy ending financially then, which could and should have been offered as soon as you had to flee the cottage.
But there is no straight answer to the health and safety question of exactly what a customer should do if an alarm sounds, and why Sykes Cottages felt it could shrug this off so easily.
£50 Amazon gift card scam that kept me stuck in a loop
Ms J.D. writes: I received an email from Amazon, saying my order for a £50 gift card had been processed.
At the time, my Amazon account was £83 in credit, but I had not ordered any such gift card.
I frantically tried to call Amazon but was caught in a continual loop, being given a three-digit code to enter, but each time I did this a recorded message said nothing had been entered and I was cut off.
Card sharks: Crooks found a weak spot at Amazon
Tony Hetherington replies: When crooks find a weak spot involving a huge business like Amazon, they exploit it to the full. They reckon – correctly – that they can get away with quite a bit before a large company puts the time and resources into reacting and stopping them.
After failing to speak to Amazon, you remembered that it had the details of your Mastercard, so you called the card company, only to be told a further £20 had been spent. You put a stop on the card and tried Amazon again. This time you got through, and you were told more gift cards had already been bought on your account. Amazon told you never to share your password, but you had not shared it with anyone. However, you reminded Amazon that two weeks earlier you had signed up to Amazon Prime and ordered a pair of sandals. But what arrived on your doorstep was a DVD and four replacement toothbrush heads.
Amazon asked you to use a new password, which you did, only to find your account had then been linked to an American Express card which was not yours. You deleted it, but spent another 90 minutes explaining all this to Amazon. To its credit, Amazon had recorded all your calls and someone there sat down and went through them, confirming everything you said.
Amazon has beefed up the security on your account. A spokesman told me: ‘We are sorry that this customer’s experience has fallen short of the high standards that we expect, and we have apologised to the customer and refunded them in full.’
If you believe you are the victim of financial wrongdoing, write to Tony Hetherington at Financial Mail, 9 Derry Street, London W8 5HY or email [email protected]. Because of the high volume of enquiries, personal replies cannot be given. Please send only copies of original documents, which we regret cannot be returned.
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