Liam Croke: How to extract yourself from contract nightmare

I have been holding off writing this article for some time because I didn’t have an ending for you – I still don’t, but I thought the time was right to share with you what happened to me earlier this year with a company who were providing all of our TV channels as well as our landline and broadband connection at home.

I have been holding off writing this article for some time because I didn’t have an ending for you – I still don’t, but I thought the time was right to share with you what happened to me earlier this year with a company who were providing all of our TV channels as well as our landline and broadband connection at home.

We had been with them three years and thought what we were paying them was OK. Chatting with friends, however, my wife Roseann discovered we were paying a lot more for a lot less than another company offered. This was confirmed when she spoke with a new provider who could offer us a much better deal for a cheaper monthly premium.

Job done, and now over to Liam to call our existing provider, which I duly did, on January 8. I was advised that in order to cancel our contract with them I had to give them 30 days’ notice, which I did in a letter dated January 12.

Fast forward to the end of March and we received a current account statement in the post and when I looked down through it, there on March 9, that provider we had given 30 days’ notice to on January 12, debited money from our account. Like the proverbial anti-Christ I called them – “You have taken money illegally from my account – why? And when are you putting it back?”

I was told by the company representative that I was going to have to put my complaint in writing and send it into them. That was how they dealt with things like this. There was no point in getting any angrier with this guy, so I wrote the letter to them and immediately I cancelled the direct debit I had with them from my account just in case they came looking for more money in April – which they did.

I know this because on June 3 I received a letter from a debt collection agency telling me that they were acting for this company and if I didn’t forward a cheque for the money I owed them – the money I owed them! – they would instigate legal proceedings against me for the recovery of the debt. I could incur large legal fees that I would have to pay as well, so basically pay up because if you don’t we will take you to court and humiliate. Plus, you will have a large legal bill.

This was a standard, templated letter that I have seen dozens of times but never addressed to me.

Anyway, I wrote back and said they could take me to court all they like, but they actually owe me money. I gave them a timeline of events, copies of letters written, dates I called the company, names of the persons I spoke to etc. All the while by the way, I never received one acknowledgement from the company in the three letters I wrote to them – nothing.

I didn’t hear anything from anyone in the weeks afterwards so I thought that was the end of that, but on July 29, I received another letter from another debt collection agency giving me five days to pay, or else see you in court. I didn’t even bother to explain myself but just copied them on correspondence I had previously sent.

Since then I have heard nothing, no court summons, no nothing and I expect I will hear nothing but they haven’t heard the last of me – they still owe me money and I want it back.

What I have learned from this whole experience is to, first of all, make sure you regularly review your bank statements each month and rather than waiting for quarterly statements to issue, get on-line access if you can and go down line by line each month to make sure no one is taking money out of your account that they shouldn’t be.

And if you do come across one – or, like me. you recently changed providers –find out what needs to be done to cancel your agreement or contract with them.

If you are trying to get out of any contract, the first thing you have to do is, consider the terms and conditions, and find out what the cancellation terms are.

When you buy most things, you have what is called a cooling-off period. If you buy things online for example, there is a cooling off period of 14 days from the date you receive the goods. If the company who sold you them fails to advise of this right to cancel, the cooling off period is extended to 12 months.

If you take out a life assurance policy, the cooling off period is 30 days from when the policy was issued and if any premiums were taken from your account within those 30 days, you are entitled to them back. What you also have to look out for if you are trying to get out of a contract is whether you signed up for a minimum contract period or not, which are typically 12 to 24 months in duration.

Yes you can get out of them but you may incur penalty charges if you do, and depending on the penalty, you might think twice about paying them as well. For example, if you have three months left on a phone contract and your bill usually costs €30 per month, they can’t charge you a cancellation fee of €200 and if they did, you shouldn’t pay it.

Watch out for contracts that automatically renew themselves after the initial period. If you don’t give them notice that you wish to terminate, it’s just a sneaky way of trapping you into a new contract.

And finally, watch out for my old friend, the notice period. My contract insisted I give them 30 days’ and that’s exactly what I did. Making sure you give notice in the correct format is key: if they want it in writing, give it to them in writing and when you do, tell them that you will be cancelling the direct debit yourself at the end of the notice period. Don’t rely on them to cancel it for you, they might try to get another month’s premium out of you just like they did with me.

No matter how annoyed you get, and your patience will be severely tested, you can’t stop paying. Either if you are still within your contract and you have no arguable reason for cancelling, or you haven’t given them the appropriate notice, because they can and will come after you for the debt.

If you believe the company was taking money from you and they had no right to, then by all means cancel the direct debit and stop paying them, but be prepared for a possible legal fight with them and be prepared to receive those threatening legal letters as well. But don’t be put off by them; if you are in the right, stand your ground and in the words of the famous Munster rugby song:

Stan’ up an’ fight until you hear de bell, Stan’ toe to toe, trade blow fer blow,

Keep punchin’ till you make yer punches tell, Show dat crowd watcher know!

Until you hear dat bell, dat final bell, Stan’ up an’ fight like hell!”