DateWednesday 2 March 2005

“Late payment charges” on credit cards: you don’t have to pay, and I’m the living proof

I wrote previously about how you don’t have to pay the “late payment” fee that credit card companies charge. At the time, while plausible, it was only the word of a barrister (and on reflection, 50 per cent of them are wrong when they come up before the beak). Though note that one commenter succeeded there too.

However, today I tried it, and it’s true: credit card companies know that they can’t make these charges stick.

I got my two credit card bills, where I had one card with a large (recent) sum added on a very small sum (around £60) plus another card with about £50 outstanding. On both there was also a “late payment charge” of £20. Part of the reason I was late in paying was that the Barclaycard site wasn’t working, again. But that wasn’t the justification I was going to use for refusing to pay the late payment.

So I phoned the Barclaycard people. “Hello,” I said. (Calm, polite, in control.) “I’d like to pay my balance, but I’m not going to pay your penalty charges.”

OK, said the man. Let’s go through some security questions… “now, you say that you don’t want to pay the late payment charges. These are applied for being late with a payment.”

So I see, I said, but they’re not enforceable. You, Barclaycard, haven’t incurred the costs you’re levying here; my missing this payment by a day or two does not add up to twenty pounds of costs for you. It’s not enforceable – it’s an unfair contract term.

He said that they had to levy these charges, that they were averaged for everyone, and there was a whole department for dealing with late payments. Well, I haven’t heard from them, I said. You haven’t had to write me a solicitor’s letter. You haven’t had to get bailiffs in. Charge the costs to the people to whom you have to do those things. There’s no reason to levy these costs on me. (I stopped short of saying “It won’t stand up in court” because that might seem like tempting fate.)

We both stayed polite and calm (which is a key thing in dialogues like these: if you get angry, they win and will make your life hell). But, he said, your bank charges you for an overdraft, and they’ll send you a letter and charge you for it. (This was where he was really beginning to stretch it; for a bank, dealing with an overdraft and *writing a letter* counts as exceptional, whereas the credit card companies simply whack a charge on your next bill.) Well, I’ll speak to my bank if it tries that, I replied. But it’ll be between me and the bank.

It was just getting tothe point where I thought we were going to have to go around the buoy again, with me saying “unfair contract terms… not justified by your costs…”, when he abruptly seemed to decide he had better things to do, because he said “I see you’ve been a customer for some time now.. so we’ll forgive [it might have been some other word, like ‘waive’, but I don’t recall exactly] the late payment charges.” A small troop cheered in my heart. And so I paid up the fair balance of my cards, including the ridiculous interest (and there’s another story..).

So, learn from me: you too can do it. Ring them up (don’t bother with letters; too slow, not interactive enough). Be insistent; it’s about the contract being unfair (read the original article at The Guardian), not anything else.

Why under scams? Because these payments are a form of scam. Avoid them.

Spyware: it’s just *everywhere*

Following on from my latest piece in The Independent, a few links to show that this is a really complex area.

First: some in-depth testing by Windows Secrets, which shows that Ad-Aware and SpyBot don’t get rid of everything. Far from it. Read about it here. And just consider, for a moment, its conclusions:

  • Spyware and adware can prove quite difficult to remove, even for dedicated anti-spyware scanners. In the second and third group of tests, for example, one of the installed programs prevented the anti-spyware scanners from running on reboot, a common method used by anti-spyware scanners to remove stubborn spyware and adware that is currently in memory on a PC. As a result, some spyware and adware was not removed by the anti-spyware scanners during reboot that otherwise might have.
  • No single anti-spyware scanner removes everything. Even the best-performing anti-spyware scanner in these tests missed fully one quarter of the “critical” files and Registry entries.
  • It is better to use two or more anti-spyware scanners in combination, as one will often detect and remove things that others do not.

Wow, this is the sort of thing that I thought they made Wash’n’Go for. Take two anti-spyware applications onto the Net? I’ll just… hmm. Of course this test doesn’t include Microsoft’s anti-spyware beta, which you can download here.

Consider too Robert X Cringely’s gloomy prediction that Microsoft entering the anti-spyware market will cause plagues of boils and locusts, or similar. Here’s the key quote:

[For Microsoft] To sell an anti-virus (and/or anti-spyware) product, those pesky customers will probably have some expectation the products will work, will continue to work, and will be supported. When something bad happens, the customers will expect a quick and decisive response. Culturally, none of this is something Microsoft has done well. Historically, Microsoft has followed a “what you see is what you get” model, which in the world of data security, with 24/7 command centers and wall-sized video screens, won’t fly.

Although of course Microsoft isn’t presently going to sell its product – it’s going to give it away, but only for users of Windows XP SP2, which RXC deals with in a later column:

On further deliberation, I have to say that Microsoft’s entry into these businesses is far, far worse than anything I predicted. It is a disaster both for users and for the software industry.

(The Prozac definitely doesn’t work for Bob.)

Next, the full details of how Ed Bott really, really doesn’t like iDownload (and I suspect they don’t like him much). His posts are entitled iDownload: a case history in unethical marketing and iDownload: follow the money. Both very good, in-depth pieces showing how just one company acts in this field.

But the scary thing is that when it comes to spyware, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of companies out there, writing it. And they’re trying their hardest to spread it around: see this post from the Sans Internet Storm Center, which notes that developers of above-board software are getting approaches to include spyware in their distributions. Egged on, of course, by some folding stuff, or royalties. (If you’re a developer and that’s happened to you, contact me.)

And just in case anyone doubts that spyware/adware is remarkably profitable, read this post by Sunbelt Software – which points out that Claria (formerly Gator) in 2003 had $90m in sales, of which $26m was operating income. That’s 28 per cent of sales – which is hefty. Normal businesses are happy with something around 10 per cent.

Where general security, like viruses, were last year’s big topic, spyware is definitely the one of the year so far; but it’s been getting really bad for about a year already. I doubt that’s going to change, because Microsoft is far more interested in selling more copies of XP SP2, and – it looks to me – increasingly uninterested in Longhorn.