Sam Dunn: Knee-high signs and other tales from the cashpoint

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The Independent Online

The Government's response is expected within the next three weeks to a Treasury Select Committee inquiry into independent operators' practice of charging customers for using their cash machines.

The MPs called for the Post Office to review its use of machines that levy fees. They also wanted to see an analysis of how ATM fees are affecting low earners.

It's unclear how many of the proposals made by the committee will be backed by the Government, but it's to be hoped they haven't all fallen on deaf ears.

One of the MPs' strongest recommendations was that operators should be forced to make fees more transparent. However, new rules introduced last week may have helped the industry to sidestep any action by the Government.

These rules require all ATMs that impose fees, usually between £1.50 and £2 per transaction, to carry a message on the idling screen - the one showing before you insert your card - that tells you how much you're going to pay.

Any signs nearby pointing customers towards a machine must highlight the impending fee. And a notice must be put up immediately next to the ATM warning that you're about to get charged. This notice must be at eye level.

All this might seem rudimentary, but some of the operators can be somewhat slippery. During the select committee hearing in February, it was found that Cardpoint, an ATM operator, had slapped a fee-warning sticker at knee height.

That's not all. A trio of ATM operators - Cardpoint, Moneybox and Bank Machine - secretly voted against transparent charges at a meeting of Link members (the organisation that runs the cash network).

Now, if operators fail to adhere to the new rules, Link can hit back with a fine, a curb on future ATM expansion or by switching off the offending cash machine altogether. The size of the fine is commercially sensitive, Link says, but it insists it will be big enough to deter bad behaviour.

A hit squad has also been hired to swoop on ATMs in a mystery shopper campaign.

That Link needs to check that operators are complying with the new rules says it all.

At its inquiry, the select committee expressed doubts that last Friday's new industry regulations would be enough to protect consumers. It felt Link needed to exercise greater authority over its members, branding the network's approach to enforcement as "inadequate".

However, Link says it is now ready to act.

Rather than merely representing the finer points of ATM etiquette, the rules being imposed on the industry are a reminder of what is at stake.

In 2000, there were next to no fee-charging cash machines in Britain. Today, about 20,000 of the 54,000 or so machines impose a fee - almost 40 per cent of the network.

There is an argument for charges at ATMs in isolated areas. After all, operators have to pay to install the machines - and if they didn't, many communities would have no cashpoint facility at all.

But the machines' infiltration of busy locations and poor neighbourhoods at the expense of free alternatives needs constant scrutiny. Let's hope the Government's response will help provide it.

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