Simon Read: Plastic card charges are a menace that must be controlled

Rip-off fees on plastic cards have been outlawed by the Office of Fair Trading this week, but that doesn't mean we'll see the end of them any time soon. While the OFT has given companies notice to change misleading debit and credit card surcharging practices, you can be sure that they'll drag their feet long enough to ensure a decent flow of extra profits before they have to comply.

The OFT is also pushing for new laws to stop consumers being surcharged when buying goods and services with any debit card. But bitter experience teaches us that new legislation can take an eternity to reach the statute books, and that's even presuming that the OFT's proposals gain support in Parliament.

While this week's announcement by the OFT – which was nudged into action by a supercomplaint from Which? – is a victory for ripped-off consumers, I don't believe we will end up winners. In the short-term companies will continue to add extra charges when people spend on plastic. In the long-term, they'll find other ways to screw more money out of us.

Ryanair, for instance, was one of the companies highlighted by Which? as having the most expensive surcharges. The company's response this week? "We do not impose any such debit/credit card fees. Ryanair's optional fees, including its administration fee, are fully avoidable by all passengers," the airline says.

Yet anyone booking through the airline will be charged £6 per person, per flight, for paying by debit or credit card. That means a family of four taking a return flight, would be charged an extra £48 per booking. Ryanair isn't the only airline doing this. Easyjet charges £8 per booking while Flybe charges £4.50 per person per flight.

These are precisely the kind of charges Which?'s supercomplaint was supposed to put an end to. Which? has calculated that the actual cost to a company of using a debit card, for instance, is as low as around 20p, nowhere near enough to justify the charge of several pounds.

Ryanair says passengers can avoid the fee by paying with a Mastercard Prepaid card. But who has one of those? Is it worth getting one just to save paying Ryanair's charges? You'd have to choose carefully as some charge up to a tenner to have the card, plus there may be other charges. Ryanair's dismissal of the OFT's call for companies to play fair, shows why it's time for the Government to get tougher on firms.

The biggest problem, as far as I can see, is that the plastic card surcharges are effectively hidden. Anyone buying a ticket for a flight, the theatre or a football match, for instance, is only likely to discover they have to pay a few pounds more when they come to checkout. Sure, internet retailers do explain the charges somewhere on their websites, but who reads all the small print? Charges should be clear and upfront.

Travel companies that rely on attracting customers on price should be forced to include all costs in the headline figure so that anyone shopping around can compare prices easily. Other companies should also be forced to toe the line so that a ticket for a football match, for example, should be advertised at its total cost, not a lower rate that doesn't include plastic card fees or mandatory delivery charges.

The OFT says that companies will still be able to surcharge for credit cards, but not for debit cards, which it points out is the online equivalent to cash. That's fine, as long as customers know they may get a cheaper price by using debt cards. This whole injustice needs sorting now, but sadly it's likely to be months before we get any clarity or end to the unfairness.

Insurance companies have been making money hand-over-fist by selling on our details to dodgy claims firms, according to Jack Straw, former justice secretary. The practice is pernicious and clearly contributes to the rising compensation culture which in turn is contributing to higher insurance costs.

The simple solution is for insurers to scrap the practice, so praise must go to Axa this week after it became the first big firm to break ranks and commit to no longer accepting referral fees in personal injury claims. The Association of Financial Mutuals says none of its motor insurance members – which include LV and NFU – sells customer data to other organisations. But others must follow.

Law Society president Linda Lee put it best this week. She said: "Referral fees hinder access to justice, contribute to rising costs in the justice system, and go against the interests of the consumer. We have always argued for a total ban on referral fees. Jack Straw believes they should be banned ... and now even the insurance industry agrees they should be banned. The Government needs to wake up and take immediate action." Absolutely!

Sixty years of hurt

credit cards reached their 60th birthday on Thursday: the first was launched in New York on 30 June 1951. Since then they've proved a convenient way to pay for tens of millions. But is the landmark a cause for celebration? Just ask those whose lives have been ruined by easy credit which has led to a debt spiral.

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