Thursday, July 16, 2015

Taken without consent

Apparently, if a financial institution changes what it charges you (including creating brand new fees) it can do that as long as it tells you. It doesn’t need a response from you. It just needs to tell you that from now on you get to pay them for something you never requested.
It does not even need evidence that the message was received. Message sent,  it can get on with taking the money from your account.
I’m not making this up – and according to the folk at Hargreaves-Lansdown –it’s all perfectly legal and within the rules.
I bought some Royal Mail shares when the  last government was fool enough to give them away some time ago. I followed this trade with one other in which I sold the amount of Royal Mail shares that covered the cost of my investment within a few days. I left the rest in the Hargreaves-Lansdown account I’d opened specifically for the purpose. I used them because they were relatively easy to use online.
That was my last transaction with them. And the last contact from customer to Hargreaves-Lansdown between then and now.
In the meantime they sent me many letters in the post – pretty consistently marketing material aimed at getting me to invest in other shares with them. In short order I began to view them just as I do the regulars from Virgin about broadband – spam that goes direct to the bin – for the most part, unopened.
A CRM or even learning business process could have saved them heaps in postage. The spam wasn’t working. The evidence is clear in my empty trading record.
Unbeknownst to me, among this deluge of spam were letters informing me that they were now going to charge me for paper reports. Now, if you know me, the last thing in the world I am going to opt for is paper reports when a digital version is available. The fact is I didn’t opt in for either. But HL’s argument is that because I didn’t respond to their letters, telling me they were going to charge me for something I had neither requested nor had any intention of using, they could merrily take cash from my account.
At first they took the share dividends my Royal Mail shares paid out without telling me. Then (and this is when the penny dropped for me at last) they sent a letter (one I did open) telling me my account held insufficient funds to cover fees that fell due. Fees? I thought. What fees? I didn’t k now I was paying these guys fees? Annual ones? I don’t recall opting for that? I never had, that’s why I couldn’t recall it.
But because they had sent me a letter saying they were changing their terms from what was a free service to one which would now be billable, they were within their rights to bill me and then charge me even more.
I don’t like being in debt to these types (it can ruin your credit rating), so I paid a further £20 odd at the weekend on a DD card. I do so without any grace.
Now if all of this is within the letter of the law then I say shame on the law (or in this case the regulation). It’s clearly been designed to protect the institution over its customer.
Think of other reasons why I may not have responded (apart from my learned behaviour of binning letters I consider spam). I may have moved house. I may have been in a coma. I may have been dead.
So what? Ker-ching and another fee gets taken on another account to pay for something another person never requested or agreed to pay for. I wonder how many of us there are? (And if you have ever done a trade with Hargreaves-Lansdown I suggest you make checks).
Oh – for the record – since December last year they have sent me around 40 emails. None of them refer to taking any fee from me for paper services. All of them are general marketing messages.

Here’s a thought for Hargreaves-Lansdown: Instead of opting-in people to pay when you don’t hear back from them, stop sending out the paper documents instead. And when they contact you requesting you switch the service back on, have that conversation about paying for it. Somehow that would seem altogether more honest.
The sums involved here may be small - but the principle is an important one. Everyone's mother teaches them: "Don't take without asking".

And just before anyone tells me I should have opened my spam... a reminder on the importance of making sure messages are received by those for whom they are intended - from The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

UPDATE: On July 21, 2015 after a series of lengthy exchanges between myself and increasingly senior members of the H-L team, I finally received a refund for the latest report (though not, it has to be said, for previous fees taken on other occasions). 
I was told of this in a message from the CEO. I'll be fair and say the tone was not somewhat questioning with a degree of surprise retained that I had not read their communications (to which I refer you to the video above).
That being said, the CEO did say that their policy was that where people were unaware of the paper fee and contacted them then it was usually waived (provided they then swapped to paperless). That hadn't happened in my case costing both parties considerable time and effort.
I will also note that I have only been refunded the most recent paper fee.  I'm still out of pocket on reports it seems I must continue to receive, though at least - as the digital option is now well and truly selected - future ones will be at no additional cost.
The victory may be small (£12 back for - all my dividends on the shares I hold there plus a recent payment of just over £20) but at least the CEO knows in detail how his customer experience is working out right now...

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?