Co-op repays card customers: Late statements may have cost the bank pounds 100,000 in refunds, reports Maria Scott

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THE Co-operative Bank has refunded thousands of pounds to customers who received credit card bills too late last month to avoid paying interest on their accounts. The bank says the final bill could be as high as pounds 100,000.

Roger Gorvin, executive director of the Co-operative Bank, said that 70,000 bills, due to be posted at the beginning of May, had been despatched late, so that some customers only had two or three days to pay. This meant that some customers could not avoid being charged interest. Most of those affected were people with Gold Cards, although some other cardholders were hit.

The bank has only refunded customers who complained and Mr Gorvin believes the bank had probably heard from most of those affected. Any other customers who discovered they had been wrongly charged would also be refunded.

Mr Gorvin played down the problem, stating that the issue had been dealt with and that the amount of interest refunded was insignificant compared with the turnover on the bank's 1.5 million credit cards.

He defended the bank's decision not to write to all customers whose statements went out late. Not all of them were wrongly charged, he said. Some paid their bills off in full by variable direct debit, others were able to meet the payment date despite receiving their statements late and others would have paid interest anyway because they did not intend to pay off their bills in full.

'In the majority of cases there was no need to write. Many customers were able to pay on time and a lot were paying by direct debit', he said.

Mr Gorvin was unable to say exactly how many customers had received refunds nor what the final bill was. He said it was less than pounds 100,000 so far but the bank estimated it could reach pounds 100,000, based on the number of accounts known to have been charged interest last month.

The prompt despatch of bills is crucial for many of the Co-op's 1.5 million credit card customers. The bank's Gold Card and its new Robert Owen card operate with a 46-day interest-free period, shorter than most other credit cards. Customers who want to avoid paying interest have a maximum of 15 days after the statement date to do so, compared with 25 days on conventional credit cards.

Customers are told they must allow seven working days for cheques to reach their card accounts if paying by post. Although the short interest-free period is made clear on the Co-op's literature it has taken many customers by surprise and has been the subject of a number of complaints.

The shorter interest-free period on the Gold and Robert Owen cards is a huge money-saver for the Co-op and is the main reason it has been able to offer the cards with a promise that they will never charge a fee.

Gold Card customers who do not pay their bills by direct debit are charged interest at 1.85 per cent a month, an annual percentage rate of 24.6 per cent, if they do not pay their bills in full. This is one of the more expensive rates on the card market.

Earlier this year the bank transferred 100,000 customers of its old- style Visa card, called Classic, to the Robert Owen card and some of these customers have complained that they have been caught out by interest charges because they were not aware of the switch.

The reason for the late despatch of the statements last month is unclear.

The Co-op appeared at first to be blaming its problem on First Data Resources, which is sub-contracted to send out the card statements. FDR carried the can for problems on credit cards run by National Westminster and other banks last year.

Mr Gorvin said that FDR's service for the Co-op had been flawless except for this one minor problem.

Asked whether the Co-op would be pursuing FDR for compensation over the refunds it had paid he said: 'That is a matter between them and us.'

The Independent put this to John Elfman, director of quality at FDR, who denied that there had been any problems with despatch of Co-op card statements. Mr Gorvin responded: 'A number of statements went out late. Our statements go out from FDR.'

Mr Elfman then discussed the matter with the Co-op and said: 'We are in agreement with the bank that there is no dispute between us. The bank reaffirms that FDR's service has been exemplary. All queries should be addressed to the Co-op.'

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