Money News: Call for borrower protection from £57m 'unexpected' costs

A change in the law is needed to protect UK consumers from credit card cheques that cost up to £57m in unforeseen charges, says the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

The cheques, often sent unsolicited by lenders, allow users to pay for goods or services and rack up the debt on their associated credit card account.

However, the extra costs of using these cheques are "unexpected" for many consumers because of lack of clarity over the charges, the OFT said.

Downsides to the cheques include higher rates of interest than a credit card; a 2 per cent fee per cheque; and no interest-free period from the day of the purchase (unlike those cards that give customers up to 56 days to clear debt interest-free).

Consumers who make purchases with the cheques also miss out on the usual protection against faulty or undelivered goods afforded by credit cards under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.

The lack of information about these important costs and limitations was "unacceptable", the OFT stressed.

It recommended legislation to ensure that these details are made clear and transparent, and that lenders all present them in the same format.

The call came as part of its response to a consultation on credit card cheques ordered in November last year by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Consumer groups including Which? want lenders' mailshots of unsolicited credit card cheques to be banned.

The DTI consultation closed two weeks ago but no date has been fixed for a decision.

Fuel bills: Powergen's rates up by a quarter

Fuel bills for nearly nine million Powergen customers are to rise by up to 24 per cent, it emerged last week.

From 10 March, electricity bills will go up by 18.4 per cent and gas by 24.4 per cent, the company announced.

Like British Gas, Scottish Power and other suppliers before it, Powergen blamed the huge rises on the surging cost of wholesale gas, which has nearly doubled since January 2005.

Two weeks ago, British Gas and EDF Energy announced they were to hike bills for customers; with the former, it was by 22 per cent for both gas and electricity.

Powergen's price increases will add £122 to the average customer's annual gas bill and £92 to electricity bills, according to research from the online price-comparison service SimplySwitch.com.

"Customers, especially those on low incomes, will feel the pinch," says SimplySwitch's Karen Darby.

"However, there are still some extremely competitive capped-price deals on offer, so it's definitely worth checking to see if switching can help."

Energywatch, the consumer fuel watchdog, recently warned of "almost unbearable pressure" in the fight against "fuel poverty" - where at least 10 per cent of a household's income is eaten up by energy bills.

New bank branches: Halifax in current account chase

The Halifax will open 50 new branches in south-east England in an attempt to take a bigger slice of the current account market.

Its move runs counter to the trend for cheaper telephone and internet banking, and is based on its own research showing that a convenient branch location is "especially important" for current account customers.

Although the accounts aren't particularly profitable in themselves, they are seen as a way to cross-sell other, more lucrative products such as mortgages, personal loans and insurance.

To this end, each new Halifax branch will include mortgage and investment advisers who can sell complex, long-term savings products more easily in person than over the telephone or online.

The expansion, to cost £100m, will also include the relocation of an existing 50 branches to bigger premises in the same towns.

Although a comprehensive list of new bank locations has yet to be drawn up, it will include beefing up the presence in Norwich and two new branches in London's Square Mile.

The Halifax, which already has some 1,000 branches and estate agencies across the UK, is largely focused on the north of England and the Midlands.

New helpline: Impartial advice if you're deep in debt

A pilot telephone helpline offering free advice for consumers struggling with debt has been launched.

The free service, backed by the Government and consumer groups such as Citizens Advice, aims to prevent consumers from unnecessarily paying for advice from debt-management companies, which charge for helping to restructure debts.

"People struggling to pay off debt need access to clear, impartial advice," said Gerry Sutcliffe, the minister for consumer affairs. "Research has shown that many people do not know where to go when they need help."

The service will act as a beacon to attract attention before directing callers elsewhere - to a Citizens Advice bureau for face-to-face advice, say, or to the Consumer Credit Counselling Service for phone help.

Callers to the 0800 980 2800 number will be asked a few questions about their debts and income before being offered advice about where to go next.

Although using a national phone number, the pilot is taking place in Gloucestershire and Yorkshire. If successful, it will be rolled out across England and Wales.

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