Weekly Money: Round-up of the personal finance stories you may have missed 16-20 February

 

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The Independent Online

Credit woes for young adults; Action demanded on energy market; Isa allowance warning; Amazon Prime row: Three year zero per cent credit card deal; Debit cards for partially-sighted and blind people; the stories we noticed this week.

20 February

Anyone who thinks it’s OK to use a hand-held phone while driving could end up being put on an insurance blacklist. Drivers who make calls or text are being targeted by a new police ‘spy from the cab’ campaign.

Anyone caught may not just face a fine, but could also be hit by big increases in car insurance premiums or even refused cover.

“Drivers using a hand-held mobile phone are at four times greater risk of having a crash,” pointed out Janet Connor of AA Insurance. “Although a CU80 offence for using a hand-held mobile phone commands only the same fixed penalty as an SP30 speeding offence (three points and a £100 fine), it could add another £100 to your annual premium as well.

“Depending on the circumstances the offence could be escalated to careless or even dangerous driving, which risks disqualification as well as a heavy fine.” She said the majority of insurers will penalise those who commit a mobile phone offence, possibly not renewing cover when it comes up for renewal.

* * *

Young people are being trapped in a vicious circle of credit applications and rejections, a new report published today warns. It shows that nearly a third of Brits have been turned down or not got the rate they wanted when applying for credit, but the figure rises to 57 per cent of 18-34 year olds.

In fact around a million young people have been turned down five times or more, reckons uSwitch. The rejection is driving them to payday lenders or pawn shops.

David Mann of uSwitch said: “Young people are reapplying for credit again and again but don’t realise the consequences such a scattergun approach has on their finances. They need more information about why they’re being turned down and what they can do about it.”

19 February

MPs and consumer groups have demanded radical action to repair the energy market after the Competition and Markets Authority accused the Big Six suppliers of penalising loyal energy customers by between £158 to £234 a year.

Labour’s Shadow Energy Secretary Caroline Flint said: “This report confirms that Britain’s energy market is broken and that radical action is needed to protect consumers.”

Consumer group Which? also weighed into the row. Its executive director, Richard Lloyd said: "Competition is not working for consumers. The CMA now needs to develop a set of solutions to repair the market and make it work for everyone, not just the suppliers.”

The CMA’s investigation showed that more than 95% of customers of British Gas, EDF, E.on, Npower, Scottish Power and SSE paid hundreds more than they need to for gas and electricity by sticking on standard tariffs rather than switching to lower fixed rate deals.

***

Banking should start getting easier for partially-sighted and blind people from today after NatWest and RBS launched new plastic cards designed to help them.

The debit and savings cards have tactile markings to identify the card, a notch to show what direction to insert the card into an ATM and large print phone number on reverse .

They are the first banking product to be accredited by the charity Royal National Institute of Blind People, which estimates that almost two million people in the UK are living with sight loss.

Ross McEwan, chief executive of RBS, said: “It’s really important to me that we make banking as simple and easy as possible for all of our customers and our accessible cards are another step towards us earning back trust.”.

***

The 0 per cent credit card balance transfer deals are getting longer. This week Barclaycard launched a three-year deal offering new customers 0 per cent interest on balance transfers for up to 36 months from account opening.

However there’s a hefty 2.99 per cent handling fee which means being charged around £60 if you transfer a £2,000 balance.

* * *

New EU rules designed to cut energy waste from hobs and ovens come into force tomorrow. The EU Ecodesign Directive will force manufacturers to improve insulation and re-design doors to ensure that less heat is lost.

In the process, they could save households £1.1bn over the next 15 years, reckons the New Economics Foundation. It estimates that the yearly savings will increase to reach £174m in 2030 as people replace their old ovens and hobs with the newer, more efficient models.

18 February

We are collectively set to waste up to £1.3bn this year by not using our tax-free Isa allowances. That’s according to the latest Tax Action campaign from Prudential and Unbiased.

Karen Barrett, chief executive of unbiased.co.uk said: “Our research shows that £4.9bn is set to be wasted in overall tax inefficiencies this year, £200m more than last year, with Isa waste making up a large share of this. Moving money into tax-efficient Isa accounts is a simple way to make savings work harder for you.”

* * *

Npower has launched a fixed-rate tariff that will go down if standard prices fall. The Feel Good Fix, which runs until May 2017, guarantees that prices will not go up during the period, but if Npower reduces its standard prices, then you’ll get a comparable price fall in your region.

Compared with Npower’s standard tariff the new deal offers an annual saving of £140 to the average dual fuel direct debit customer.

* * *

Looking to cut the cost of flying abroad? Travel experts say booking trips for four, six or nine days – rather than the usual seven, ten or fourteen – can reduce flight prices.

You can find out which are the cheapest times to fly through Momondo.co.uk. The more flexible you are with dates and times, the cheaper it may be. Flight-comparison sites such as Kayak.co.uk and Skyscanner.net will help you track down deals, while you’ll find cut-price charter flights with tour companies at Charterflights.co.uk and Avro.co.uk.

17 February

The clamour of complaints from people who have been unexpectedly charged £79 for Amazon Prime is growing.

The company enticed millions in before Christmas with the promise of free next-day delivery if they signed up for 30-days free trial.

It’s an offer that has been around for a few years but it catches people out every year with the most-high-profile victim restaurant critic Giles Coren who turned to Twitter yesterday to vent his anger.

“I can't believe you've been screwing me for £79 a year for Prime! I had no idea,” he wrote after discovering that his free trial in 2012 had led to the £79 a year charge.

Amazon said: "Customers can cancel their membership at any time and we will refund the full membership if the customer has not made any eligible purchases or used any Prime benefits."

So as long as you haven’t used the free delivery, downloaded or streamed any videos through the service, or borrowers a Kindle book, you can simply cancel the membership and reclaim the subscription.

***

Should you demand a receipt from a tradesperson? If you don’t have a receipt, you don’t have any proof of payment. So for your protection, in case there are any problems with the work done, especially building work, you should always get a receipt.

What about the tax position if you pay in cash? Just because someone asks to be paid in cash doesn’t mean they’re trying to avoid tax. There are several reasons why some traders prefer cash, not least to help with cashflow.

But if a tradesperson was caught not declaring income then they could be prosecuted for tax evasion. Ultimately that could mean a prison sentence. If they didn’t declare any income that they received from you, that doesn’t mean that you’re guilty too. The offence is committed by the non-declaration, not the cash payment.

Tradespeople have several legal obligations. They must inform HM Revenue & Customs that they are trading and therefore liable to income tax. They must also register for VAT if their turnover is above the VAT threshold (which is currently £81,000). Finally they must submit correct and complete tax returns.

***

We lose £1 from every £10.60 of our monthly income because of faulty goods, bad business practice and poor service, reckons Citizens Advice. It analysed data of people who got help from the charity and went onto solve their problem. It showed that the average financial loss faced is £250 while one in four people face losses of £600 or more. 

In fact one person who got help from Citizens Advice faced costs of up to £33,000 due to problems with a motor home.

Costs are often incurred if people try to cancel agreements due to bad service. One person waited two months for a new broadband service to be installed but after a number of cancelled installations by the company the customer decided to cancel the contract but was told he’d have to pay a £120 exit fee.

“Bad business practices cost people time and money,” said Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice chief executive. “Some firms are using hidden terms and unfair cancellation processes to extort money from their customers.”

* * *

With 31 fixed rate energy tariffs coming to an end before the end of May, hundreds of thousands of homeowners should switch supplier to avoid being stung by huge bill hikes. Customers on these tariffs will face automatic price hikes of up to £168, warns MoneySupermarket.

In fact eight fixed-rate tariffs are due to expire at the end of February, including deals from British Gas, EDF Energy, nPower and Scottish Power.

* * *

The insurance industry has called for stronger safeguards on young drivers to improve road safety and lower the cost of car insurance premiums.

The Association of British Insurers said moves such as a crackdown on fraudulent whiplash claims have helped bring down costs, but more action is needed to tackle the “unacceptably high” number of serious crashes involving young motorists.

It called for the introduction of a graduated driving licence regime to limit the number of passengers that a young driver is able to carry.

16 February

Some 13.5 million households are missing out on £2.7 billion worth of bill savings by not moving to a new energy supplier, reckons the Government.

To help, the Department of Energy and Climate Change is today launching a new ‘Power to Switch’ campaign to encourage people to switch supplier and save.

With 26 energy companies on the market and some fixed deals £100 cheaper than they were a year ago, there’s never been a better time to find a great deal, reckons Energy Secretary Ed Davey.

The Government has been forcing energy market reform to halve switching times - it now takes only 17 days to switch energy supplier down from five weeks last year.

“Even after the recent price cuts, someone on a Big Six standard tariff with typical use will pay £1,158 a year, whereas if they switch to the cheapest tariff they’d pay just over £900 a year,” pointed out MoneysavingExpert Martin Lewis.

Switching is easy: call or log online to a price comparison site, enter your postcode and usage and see how much you can save.

***

Commuters are being hit by poor service as well as high travel costs, reckons consumer group Which?

It latest train satisfaction survey published today reveals that rail operators aren’t doing enough to let delayed passengers know their rights on compensation.

Three in 10 passengers said they had suffered a delay when they last travelled, but three quarters of those held up for more than an hour said they were not told that it meant they qualified for a full refund.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd, said:  “Passengers often have little or no choice as to the rail companies they travel with, so as ticket prices continue to rocket, more must be done to improve customers’ satisfaction and to inform people of their right to a refund as a result of delays.”

***

Property prices are being forced up because there are not enough homes to satisfy demand. The February RightMove estate agent survey shows that the average price of property coming to market this month has climbed 2.1 per cent by £5,729.

The news follows Friday’s house building figures which revealed that boom inspired by the Government’s Help to Buy initiative ended in the final quarter of last year as the volume of new homes built dropped 0.2 per cent.

Together the two sets of data suggest that property prices will continue climbing through 2015, despite concerns around the general election results and potential fears of interest rate increases happing sooner rather than later.

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