News: Victory for fair play in row over World Cup sales

Fifa lifts restrictions on ticket purchases; insurer to pay £6.3m after leaving customers in dark; 'rate tarts' hit with new fees
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Football fans no longer face insurmountable financial barriers to obtaining tickets for the 2006 World Cup after the European Commission forced Fifa, international football's governing body, to allow payment to be made straight from a UK current account.

Football fans no longer face insurmountable financial barriers to obtaining tickets for the 2006 World Cup after the European Commission forced Fifa, international football's governing body, to allow payment to be made straight from a UK current account.

Last week, Fifa backed down from its insistence that fans could buy early-availability tickets only if they held a Mastercard (the tournament sponsor), had a bank account in Germany (where the tournament is to be held), or were willing to pay up to £35 in banking charges for an international money transfer.

Now, over the next few weeks, Fifa will open accounts at all the major UK high-street banks (and those of other EU countries outside the single currency). This will allow the organisation to set up a free payment system.

Behind Fifa's decision was an official complaint made to the EC by the British consumer group Which? in March. This highlighted the "anti-competitive nature [of the arrangement] and financial penalties for fans".

As well as a fiendishly complex ticket-sales system, involving the "slow release" of tickets in four separate tranches, many UK fans have had to grapple with a payment puzzle. There are nearly two-thirds as many Visa card holders in the UK as Mastercard holders. To buy one of the first batch of tickets to be released, those without a Mastercard - whose applications had been successful - were previously forced to take one out. If the company chose not to accept them as customers, the ticket purchase fell through.

Fans' remaining options weren't exactly straightforward, either. Opening a German current account would have been a complicated and expensive process. And a £35 bank transfer would, in many cases, have added a premium to the price of tickets of nearly 50 per cent.

The relaxing of these rules means that fans hoping to get in on the second tranche of early-availability tickets, which was released last week, can put in an application knowing they won't incur expensive surcharges. Those who are successful will be notified later this year.

NU announces payout

Around 70,000 Norwich Union customers are in line for an unexpected £90 payout after the insurer discovered it had failed to disclose all its product charges to them.

During a company review of the tangle of fees and other expenses linked to life funds, it was found that thousands of customers who took out certain policies had not been give full information at the time. This had left customers paying charges they simply didn't know about; the £90 refund represents the average cost of these to each policyholder.

Customers affected are those with investments - usually an investment bond or pension - in Norwich Union's unit-linked Corporate Bond and Balanced Distribution funds (where each customer in effect buys units in a fund).

It is expected that the refund will cost the company a total of £6.3m. Existing customers will have the money credited to their policy, while those who have since left the company will be sent a cheque.

In both cases, the insurer will be writing to customers to tell them about the compensation.

"Customers should wait to receive their letter from Norwich Union and do not need to take any action themselves," said a spokes-man for the insurer.

Fund charges are complex but, in a nutshell, they break down into one fee for the fund manager's expertise and another for administration and service. While Norwich Union had given customers details for the first part of this equation, known as the annual management charge, it failed to do so for the second part.

The insurer's move comes after an announcement by the City watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, that it would be scrutinising unit pricing - particularly by life firms.

Egg card cracks

The internet bank Egg has joined the growing band of lenders slapping a fee on to their introductory 0 per cent deals on credit-card balance transfers.

Anybody seeking to take advantage of Egg's nine-month 0 per cent offer - extended from six months - must now pay 2 per cent of the sum transferred (capped at £50).

In the past three months, other lenders have adopted similar measures to shore up their bottom line. Mint, Alliance & Leicester, Tesco Personal Finance and Halifax have all applied fees on credit-card balance transfers.

Credit-card providers are losing £80m a month - nearly £1bn a year - thanks to so-called "rate tart" customers who flit between the best deals, according to a recent report from Professor Merlin Stone of the Bristol Business School.

The lenders had originally hoped that 0 per cent introductory offers would bring in new customers who would fail to pay off their balance by the end of the introductory period. It was then envisaged that they would stick with their new credit card, paying the much higher standard annual percentage rate.

However, an army of rate tarts simply carried on chasing the latest 0 per cent deals as competition heated up between lenders.

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