Diana Clement: Over-the-odds charges a shock to the wallet

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Some fees seem unreasonable but others technically break the law

It pays to read the fine print on tickets that seem cheap. Photo / Thinkstock
It pays to read the fine print on tickets that seem cheap. Photo / Thinkstock

How often do you find yourself paying unreasonable charges? Maybe you want to cancel your mobile phone package. Or maybe you need your teeth drilled. When the bill comes you need to sit down and have a stiff drink to cope with the shock.

This week I've been looking at some of the ways we have our hard-earned cash prised from us for charges that we either didn't expect or that we pay over the odds for.

When it comes to "unreasonable charges", there are those that feel unreasonable and there are those that technically break the rules. The Commerce Commission deals with cases that break laws such as the Fair Trading Act and the Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act (CCCFA).

Under the CCCFA, lenders such as banks and finance companies that provide hire purchase must make sure that:

All fees the borrower must pay are disclosed.

The fees are described clearly.

The fees are reasonable.

Third-party fees are passed on at cost.

Fees often aren't spelled out to consumers, says Jessica Wilson at Consumer NZ, a non-profit organisation. It's the "tickets from $30" with "booking fees apply" in the small print that shouldn't be allowed.

This is called drip pricing and companies use it because you're more likely to buy a ticket at $30 than at $37.50 or more, with booking and credit-card fees included. Wilson would like to see such pricing outlawed as it has been in Australia.

"The Fair Trading Act prohibits misleading representations about price," says Consumer NZ. "But the act hasn't been effective at regulating drip pricing. We believe all-inclusive pricing rules are needed.

"All-inclusive pricing would force companies to disclose the full purchase price upfront."

Cancellation fees are another bugbear, and are rife in the gym, telecommunications and power industries. "You want to get out because the service is unsatisfactory, but you have to pay an unreasonable fee to end [the contract]," says Wilson.

Consumer NZ took Telecom to task last year for offering a "free trial" of its caller display and call-minder services that cost $99 to cancel at the time. The service itself cost $2.55 a month for caller display and $7.15 a month for call minder, which made the cancellation fee more than the yearly cost of the service.

Consumer NZ member Christine Pirie had the cancellation charge reduced to $15 after "lengthy discussions" with Telecom.

Other members have responded on the Consumer website forums with their own gripes. One signed up for 24 months of wireless broadband only to find she couldn't get reception where she wanted to use it. "We are stuck with either $80 a month for 24 months or a hefty disconnection fee of $500."

I've learned my lesson about mobile phone contracts. I got a "free" Samsung smartphone from Vodafone three years ago. It turned out I chose the worst Samsung ever made, but I had a choice of an $80-a-month contract for two years or a termination fee that amounted to more than the full cost of the phone.

Given that I would never have bought a full-price phone in the first place, I was stuck. I eventually bought a replacement phone in the final few months and once the contract was over switched to a $4 a week data/text/voice plan.

David Whitburn, president of the Auckland Property Investors Association, believes residential property owners pay unreasonable wastewater charges. "The fixed charge homeowners and property investors pay is absurdly high and is scheduled to skyrocket on July 1."

Most Auckland residents were hit with increases averaging 10.3 per cent last year. In Manukau, where some of the city's poorest residents live, the increases were 41.4 per cent.

Even the festive season has its over-the-top charges. The Commerce Commission successfully prosecuted Chrisco last year for unreasonable cancellation charges and practices.

One example given in court was that a customer who had paid $900 towards a $1000 Christmas hamper was refunded just $450 when the order was cancelled. This and other actions by the company breached the Layby Sales Act 1971. Customers were also misled into believing they needed to cancel contracts in writing, and that a particular plan was fully refundable when it wasn't.

The Commission also prosecuted Southern Cross Finance in 2011 for unreasonable establishment fees. In the lead-up to the investigation, Southern Cross had been charging customers an establishment fee that was generally about 1-2 per cent of the loan advanced.

"In the Commission's view, establishment fees for consumer loans that are a percentage of the loan advanced are inherently unlikely to reflect the actual cost of establishing a loan and be reasonable," said Auckland enforcement branch manager Graham Gill.

Gill discovered the average actual cost of establishing a mortgage was about $1000, but a client with a $250,000 mortgage might be charged $5000.

Everyone has a pet hate. A friend mentioned cataract operations. I checked with the Eye Institute this week and the cost of a consultation, operation on one eye and two follow-up appointments is $4376. The Fred Hollows foundation, which restores people's sight in poor countries, can do the same operation for $25.

In South Korea, which ranks similarly to us in OECD gross domestic product per capita, a cataract operation costs $1500 or less.

It's widely documented that we pay a small fortune for private medical and dental care in New Zealand. Sometimes it seems hard to understand how such high prices can be charged. I've had to pay for two dental crowns in the past decade. One was $500 from my old dentist before he retired. The new dentist, operating from the same premises, charged $1300 for the next one.

A cynic might say private hospital prices are pushed up because providers expect clients' medical insurance companies to foot the bill - even though only 1.3 million of us are covered by health insurance.

Another pet hate I heard of from a Facebook friend is Accident Compensation charges for self-employed journalists. Someone who offers a letter-writing or typing service pays a levy of 0.24 per cent of earnings compared to a journalist who pays 0.43 per cent. The difference, says ACC, is that some industries make higher numbers of ACC claims and are at a higher risk of serious harm injuries. There are lots of such anomalies.

Ask any Kiwi to list "unreasonable fees" and the spectre of banks looms large. This week, a group called Fair Play on Fees announced it was planning a legal action against a number of leading banks.

"Customers are charged an average of $15 every time they overdraw their accounts, pay their credit card late or bounce a cheque when the cost to the bank is actually just a few cents," says lawyer Andrew Hooker.

"These fees are excessive and add up to around $1 billion over the past six years. It's time Kiwis fought back."

He pointed out that banks have people's money and can just deduct fees without much of a right of reply.

The Banking Ombudsman is also concerned about certain bank fees, in particular early repayment costs on fixed-rate loans and mortgages.

There is a guide for consumers on the Ombudsman's website at Bankomb.org.nz.

Banking fees are small fry, unless you're one of those people who are overdrawn all the time. Another small "unreasonable" charge that gets a lot of people is Trade Me sellers overcharging for postage. The Trade Me code of conduct and terms and conditions say sellers must not charge "unreasonable amounts for shipping and packaging costs". Yet it happens regularly, according to posters on Trade Me's community forums.

Trade Me member "borntoshop" complained about an $88 fee for packaging, postage and labour.

"I expected perhaps $10 for a 20km trip across Auckland by courier, given NZ Post is $5.50 [up to 25km] for the same trip."

Sellers can charge for packing materials as well as the postage or courier cost.

- NZ Herald

Diana Clement is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and careers. She has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years in both New Zealand and the UK. Diana has contributed to a large number of local and international publications. Her pet topic is the secrets of saving money.

Read more by Diana Clement

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