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Helping readers on the consumer desk: ‘We’re canaries in the coalmine’

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In early October, the Guardian’s consumer desk totted up how many pounds’ worth of fraud had been reported to us by readers over the summer, and were horrified to find that it was in excess of £1m.

This year we have been inundated with letters from readers who have been unfortunate enough to be caught up in all kinds of fraud – amplified and complicated by the pandemic – and asking for our help. We have seen everything: from dating scams to people using the Covid-related boom in online shopping to catch others out with fake delivery texts, and pension frauds using fake websites.

We offered advice to people on how to claim refunds and, with the help of a guest appearance by my cat, looked at how easy it is to give away valuable information to fraudsters online. The devastation scams causes victims goes beyond financial loss, and we have tried to reflect this in our coverage. Sadly, even with our intervention, people do not always get back their money. But we hope by highlighting these stories we can at least help other people be alert to the danger.

The hundreds of letters we get from readers every week lie at the heart of our operation. This correspondence makes us the canaries in the coalmine – if something is going wrong somewhere, then we are often among the first to know. Back in January, we started to hear from people who had been hit with unexpected customs bills on goods they had ordered from the EU post-Brexit. Despite the promise of tariff-free trade, it was becoming apparent that our online shopping had become more costly.

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Our experts alerted people to the new rules, explained the complexities of the post-Brexit tax situation, and even got involved in a few cases. In March, Miles Brignall took on the case of a cyclist who was facing an unexpected £2,000 bill to receive a bike imported from Poland, or a £1,500 bill to return it. With Miles’s help, the bill to keep the bike was adjusted down to £1,000 – a welcome result for a reader who had described their situation as Kafkaesque.

View image in fullscreenThe cost of daycare for your dog was among the lighter subjects investigated by the desk this year. Photograph: Igor Mojzes/Alamy

Anna Tims uncovered further Brexit fallout. After warning last year that problems could arise from asking EU citizens to use a digital system to prove they had right to remain in the UK, she followed up the cases of some of those affected. In June, she revealed how women were being caught out by a glitch which meant the wrong surname would show on the system; then in September she revealed problems arising from a technical anomaly for people changing their status.

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But the big problems for readers this year centred around Covid and the myriad consumer issues associated with it. Just 12 days into the new year we reported on how the private companies offering Covid tests for travellers were failing to deliver results in time for travellers, and we received more and more emails on the subject as people started to travel again. The whole system seemed flawed, and as the summer holidays got into full swing, Zoe Wood put the spotlight on providers who were charging much more than the headline rates, discovering that the Advertising Standards Authority was investigating.

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Pressure mounted in the summer, and there was more in September, when we found that companies were turning down requests for refunds when tests failed to turn up. Anna Tims’s story was picked up elsewhere, causing Boots to relent and repay a reader whose case she featured. The competition watchdog has now called for better vetting of the testers that appear on the government website.

Because people were travelling and needed tests, however badly the system might be set up, we did our best to help them get a good deal, with Rupert Jones providing an exhaustive guide to the most reliable providers.

This year’s energy crisis has put us in uncharted territory, with much of the usual consumer advice turned on its head

In addition to taking up readers’ cases when they’ve got problems, we have several other tasks on the desk: covering breaking news; answering questions people might have when something goes wrong or there’s a big change in policy; spotting patterns when cases are not just isolated ones; and trying to find out what’s happening behind the scenes.

Writing explainers is something we spend a lot of time and effort on. Tackling a Q&A about an unprecedented event can be tough. Sometimes we know very little about an emerging topic in the morning, but once we’ve spoken to those in the know we are able to share our new understanding with the readers. This year’s energy crisis has put us in uncharted territory, with much of the usual consumer advice turned on its head. While at the start of the year we were telling people to review their bills and switch to a better deal, now we’re explaining why they should sit tight. We’re indebted to the people who take our calls and help us make sense of events for our readers.

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It hasn’t all been gloom on the desk. Among it all there have been some lighter moments. We’ve given readers a guide to the best meal kits, looked at the cost of doggy daycare, discovered why people are buying woodland, and looked at why you won’t get your loft converted any time soon.

More recently, the cost of living has started to become a concern to more and more households, and we are doing our best to help people navigate higher bills and prepare themselves for any financial shocks that might arise in future. Whatever next year holds, we’ll do our best to explain what it means for our readers, and to take up the fight for them when they need our help. It could be yet another busy year.