Sheila McKechnie: How consumers are trampled by the charges of the light-fingered brigade

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The Independent Online

The Arthur Daleys of this world are more widespread than we think, and they don't all wear sheepskin coats. There is a whole swath of consumer life in which we end up paying a lot more than we are led to expect. Welcome to the world of hidden charges.

For example, how many times have you eaten in a restaurant with poor service and been given the bill with a service charge added? And how many times have you scribbled out the service charge and reduced the bill?

Just as annoying are "bait and switch" hidden charges. You can hardly move in the travel industry for these: you are given the headline price for a flight or holiday, but then a raft of taxes and charges are loaded on at the end.

Of course, airlines are not alone in running this scam. If you want to use a credit card to book tickets for many top football clubs and theatres, you will see one price, and pay another.

In many ways, what is most annoying about these sectors is that it is almost impossible to avoid the charges. With taxes it is actually impossible. "Service" charges for posting you your football tickets are also, in most cases, unavoidable.

Then there are the "convenience" or "lack of convenience" charges. In many of the utility industries you pay more for your service if you are a high-cost cheque or cash customer. But in other industries you pay more if you are a low-cost non-cash customer.

Many firms charge more if you pay your house insurance by direct debit instalments. The BBC licence fee also costs more if you sign a direct debit form.

Yet direct debit is a guaranteed low-cost way of collecting money - which is why we get so much hassle to sign up to it. So why are there charges?

Then we come to the "confusion" markets - where you don't get what you think you are getting. Telecoms companies are typical. They might tell you about the 5p-a-minute charge for a call, but neglect to mention the 30p connection fee. There are also the local rate phone numbers - 0870, for example - that don't get charged at the local rate.

We could go on and on. But what can we do about it? Sometimes we have to refuse to pay service charges that have been loaded on without any service having been provided. We have to make sure that the person on the phone giving us a price for a hotel room remembers to include VAT and breakfast. We have to add a pile of salt to any advertising claim with small print on extras.

If the firms that run hidden charges scams will not stop being dishonest, we must force them to.

The Consumers' Association will take on industries and businesses that cheat the consumer. But we can't do this without your help.Together we can make business play fair.

Dame Sheila McKechnie is director of the Consumers' Association