Money News: Inheritance tax - 3.6 million families set to walk in shadow of death duties

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The Independent Online

According to the accountancy firm Grant Thornton and the consultancy Lombard Street Research, 2.1 million people currently have homes, savings and other investments that, when totted up, push them over the current £275,000 IHT threshold. This is the level at which the tax would become payable on their estate after their death.

Over the next four years, Grant Thornton and Lombard Street predict this number will rise to 3.6 million. Their calculations are based on the IHT threshold rising to £312,000, in line with inflation and assuming that Chancellor Gordon Brown's current policies are continued.

Rocketing house prices in many parts of the country have left the estates of many people of modest means liable for IHT. In the past 10 years, the average home has doubled in value.

As we continue to save and invest more, and with house price growth expected to continue, albeit at a much slower pace than before, the numbers caught in the tax net will inevitably soar.

"It's a growing problem for millions of people with modest estates," said Ian Johnson, head of private client services at Grant Thornton. Despite there being no change to the 40 per cent tax rate, IHT tax receipts have more than doubled since the present Government came to office, he added.

In the 1997-98 tax year, IHT raised £1.68bn for the Treasury. Grant Thornton said the projected sum for 2005-06 was £3.4bn, and called for a national debate on reform of IHT.

Telemarketing: Watchdog gags the silent callers

Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, will be able to fine companies up to £50,000 if they break proposed new rules on nuisance "silent calls" to home phone lines.

Silent calls are generated by automatic dialling equipment in direct sales and telemarketing call centres. If there aren't enough operators available when the householder picks up, the call is terminated, resulting in a short silence on the end of the line.

BT receives more than 120,000 complaints a month about these calls. In many cases, recipients have mistakenly feared that their "silent caller" might have a sinister motive.

In June, the Direct Marketing Association, the trade body for the industry, found that nearly a quarter of all people who had received silent calls had felt anxious about them.

Now Ofcom has decided that the calls must carry a recorded message, giving householders an opportunity to be taken off the marketing company's list. The recipient must also be able to dial 1471 and get the firm's phone number.

A second silent call to the same property must not be made within 72 hours. This type of call must now make up no more than 3 per cent of a company's calls in any 24-hour period.

Each breach of these rules will incur a fine of up to £50,000, Ofcom said.

"Excessive silent calls have become a real problem," said Stephen Carter, Ofcom's chief executive. "New fines and rules are appropriate and necessary."

Ofcom also published its conclusion from an investigation into a number of companies whose marketing involves silent calls. Four businesses, including Ant Marketing and Thomson Directories, must now reduce the number of calls to less than 3 per cent of their total daily output.

ATM donations: Charity begins at an HSBC cashpoint

Customers of HSBC and its First Direct telephone and online bank can now give to charity at their high-street ATM.

HSBC's 2,900 cash machines let users make a donation from as little as £1, and the transaction is then listed on their monthly bank statement.

For now, the only charity customers can donate to is the BBC's Children in Need, but there are plans to extend the initiative by the end of the year.

One drawback is that charitable gifts made at an ATM cannot benefit from Gift Aid. The charity would usually get another 28p from the taxman for every £1 received, if the donor is a UK taxpayer.

HSBC first introduced the service in Mexico three years ago. Today, donations represent 5 per cent of all its Mexican ATM transactions.

Card fraud: Banks urged to tighten security

Tighter security measures should be in place before credit and debit cards sent by post can be activated by the recipients, consumer group Which? has said.

Its call came after new research into the risk of card fraud showed that, last year, criminals stole around £73m using "lost" cards posted to customers.

Tighter security between the customer and the bank could help slash this cost, Which? said.

It also found that card users themselves had some responsibility for rising levels of fraud. Not enough were taking precautions such as using different PIN numbers for separate cards, or checking their credit card and bank statements for unusual debits. Consumers are not liable for card fraud unless found to have been grossly negligent - writing a PIN on a card, for example.

But Malcolm Coles, spokesman for Which?, stressed the problem wasn't just a matter of the public not being vigilant. "Banks themselves are falling down on security," he said. "They should be doing much more to cut this type of crime rather than just passing the costs on to their customers."

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