Tuesday 30 January 2007

An enemy of authority

How do you pay your bills? (Darras Hall and other readers who don’t actually pay their bills may prefer to stop here, and turn to the death notices on page 12.)

I pay an ever-increasing proportion of mine by direct debit, a concept sold to me by numerous organisations as being much simpler and more convenient than cheques. And so it is. For them. I feel rather pathetic for having been bribed and bullied into doing something so much against my better judgement, but at least I’ve got a fine collection of £50 discount vouchers off holidays and the like, handed out to thank me for signing direct debit forms. Most of these vouchers expired on or around 31 December 1994, but at least they gave me a brief warm glow of feeling that I was getting something for nothing.

I feel quite nostalgic for the old standing order, which worked a bit like a pump. Primed to push a predetermined amount of money out of your bank account into someone else’s, at intervals of your choosing. The direct debit, by contrast, converts your account into a sort of well, into which a bucket may be dipped for variable amounts whenever it takes the dipper’s fancy.

I think annual dippers are the most insidious. Or do I mean invidious? Both, in fact. You spot the payment on your bank statement (if you bother to check it), sigh and think you really must get round to cancelling it. But, hey, there’s 11 months to go and the pubs are open. So, one year on, you open your bank statement, sigh and… Go on, do it now. Write to the bank. You know it makes sense.

But if direct debits are bad, they’ve got nothing on the ‘continuous credit card authority’, a sort of direct debit on your plastic.

Years ago I cancelled a particularly useless credit card, knowing full well that I used it to pay my annual subscription to a particularly useless motoring organisation. Two birds with one stone, I thought. Only when the subscription fell due, the card company paid it anyway and started demanding that I reimburse them. A long and heated correspondence ensued. I won the battle eventually, but it was one of conflicts with no real victor: both sides lay bloodied, impoverished and exhausted.

Then a few months ago I cancelled another card, completely forgetting that I used it to pay my subscription for the dial-up Internet connection I’ve never actually used since I got broadband. An angry letter duly came through from the Internet service provider, threatening me with closure of my account and the attentions of a debt collection agency if I did not pay up. I checked and they’d closed my account anyway, without waiting for a response. So I dropped them a line to point out that I didn’t need their service anyway, thank you and goodbye.

That’s when the threatening missives from the debt collectors started arriving. I won’t bore you with the details, but the pièce de resistance was a solicitor’s letter threatening me with a County Court action if I did not immediately send them a cheque for £82.25. I checked with my own solicitor, who pointed out that it would cost me more than that to present my cast iron defence, so I most reluctantly paid up.

Within a couple of weeks, I’d received a sheepish letter from the Internet service provider admitting that I’d overpaid them by £90.77, and asking if I’d like to give them a valid credit card number so that they could use it to reimburse me. Well, no, funnily enough, in the light of experience, I wouldn’t. But I would accept a cheque. If it ever turns up, I’ll add it to the Josie Grove Appeal.

And if you’re thinking of signing a continuous credit authority to pay for just about anything, take my advice. Don’t.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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