Is your account in credit? Services and apps that cost more than you think
From parking to tolls and parcel delivery, service providers have many hidden charges
If you avail of a tag to pay your tolls automatically, the service comes at a cost. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Father Ted may have famously had money “resting in his account”, but the way many service providers now operate means that we all now have money often resting in someone else’s account.
Providers increasingly want us to pay earlier, or keep our accounts in credit – even if we ultimately never up spending this extra credit.
If you’re a fan of the many new apps and services that have cropped up in the digital age, you might be enjoying their efficiency. What you might not be aware of, however, is how they could be costing you more than you think – and how they can hold on to your money by forcing you to keep your account in credit. The practice has also crept into public transport and energy providers.
If you’re a frequent user of tolled roads, such as the M50, Watergrass Hill or on the M1, you’ll most likely avail of a tag to pay your tolls automatically, and avoid having to stop each time to pay.
However, the efficiency of the service comes at a cost. A number of companies offer the chance to rent a tag but all charge a monthly administration fee, ranging from €1.21 with TollTag.ie, to €1.25 with Direct Route.
Moreover, you’ll often have to keep your account in credit in order to use it, with providers such as Easytrip imposing a “low balance level”. This means that every time your account hits that figure, it will automatically be topped up by a fixed amount – even though you may not end up spending that money for some time.
If you’re a fan of online shopping from the UK, you’ll probably avail of a parcel service to get “free” UK delivery and pay to collect your goods from a depot close to you.
It can be a good deal, and can cut the costs of a delivery from the UK to about €3.95, while many operators also give you free returns. A number of providers now offer this service, including Parcel Motel and Parcel Direct. But like with other services, they require you to keep your account in credit.
Parcel Motel for example, won’t allow you to accept delivery of a parcel unless your account is in credit by €10.50. So despite a delivery costing €3.95, you will have to top it up by €10, and leave the balance “resting in your account” until such time as you might use it. If you’re a frequent user, this is unlikely to inconvenience you, but if you’re not, you might have preferred to hold on to your money.
There is a way of getting around this, however. You can now register a credit card with the company, and each time you use the service your credit card will automatically be debited.
Parking tags, which allow you to pay your parking fees via your phone, are another provider that want you to keep your money in credit with them. No one is disputing their efficiency – after all you’d need buckets of coins these days to park anywhere near Dublin city centre – it’s worth thinking about how much more they might cost you.
You can use the service on a one-off basis but remember it does cost. Parkingtag.ie for example, charges you a fee of 20 cent plus VAT for a one-off parking transaction. For example, if you have to pay €3.50 an hour to park in a particular spot, it will cost you €3.75 if you pay for it via text, rather than feeding the metre with coins.
For others, charging the fee to their mobile phone will be a better option, a service offered to customers of Vodafone and 3 Mobile. But this will also cost you more than putting coins into the metre. Parkingtags.ie for example will charge you 25 cent per transaction, with an extra 20 cent per SMS reminder and “motorists using the charge to mobile service will automatically receive a reminder SMS”. So this could be 45 cent more than if you had paid with cash.
The final option when looking to pay for parking through your phone is to register with a parking app. No surprise though that this also will cost.
Parkingtag.ie for example, has a 50 cent plus VAT monthly administration fee, while if you opt for SMS reminders, you’ll also pay an extra 20 cent each time.
Another provider, Parkbytext, also charges 50 cent plus VAT a month.
The apps’ top-up approach might annoy. With Parkingtag.ie for example, every time your account balance falls to €10, it will automatically top up. So if you don’t use the app regularly, €10 of your money will be sitting in this account.
And be warned should you wish to stop using the service. Parkbytext, for example, will refund you any money left in your account if you wish to terminate it but it will first deduct an administration charge of €5 plus VAT, which comes to about €6.15.
If you need a refund for any reason, you should again expect a fee. Parkbytext, for example, will charge you a €1 administration charge for any refunds to a debit or credit card, and the minimum refund is €3. So if you’re owed less than this you won’t get it back.
And if you forget to use your account? Well, if you leave it there for 18 months without using it, then it will become inactive, Parkbytext says, “and any remaining funds will be removed from the account”.
A Leap Card can save you up to 32 per cent on your trip versus cash single fares across a range of Dublin city transport options, including Luas, Dart and bus, or as much as 30 per cent on Bus Éireann services in cities like Cork, Limerick and Galway.
But to get your Leap card, you’ll need to put down a deposit of €5, as well as minimum travel credit of €5.
A student Leap card meanwhile will cost €10 upfront, while a child up to the age of 18 will need a €3 refundable deposit. While this deposit is refundable, if your card is dormant for 24 months or more, the National Transport Authority (NTA) has the right to keep the funds.
However, a spokesman says that, “to date no customer funds from dormant accounts have been taken by NTA”.
If you do request a refund you will be given the opportunity of donating this to charity; since 2016 over €18,700 has been donated in this way, a spokesman says.
Moreover, if you have moved outside the SEPA (Single Euro Payments Area) zone and want to get a refund on your card, you won’t be able to, as the NTA no longer issues cheques in such circumstances. This means that any requested funds can only be assigned to a nominated charity.
If you’re a bus user paying by cash, you might also find yourself short-changed if you don’t have the exact fare when using a Dublin Bus service. Previously, you would have received a “refund due” receipt when you paid too much for your trip. While many of us may never have bothered to cash these in, at least you were given the option.
Since last September however, passengers have received an “extra payment” receipt, but the catch is that it is non-redeemable.
Dublin Bus says that this is part of a move to “move to cashless operations”; but if the bus service is still accepting cash, one could reasonably expect people to still be able to collect their refunds?
Dublin Bus says that the extra payment will go towards “continuing to improve our services, and to support local communities across the Greater Dublin Area”.
When it comes to your gas and electricity bills, you might also find that you’re leaving a little bit extra of your cash with your energy provider.
If you don’t have your meter read regularly, it’s likely that your energy provider is basing your bills on either your previous usage, or the expected average consumption rates. According to the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU), these averages are 4,200kWh a year for electricity, and 11,000kWh for gas.
But what if you’ve been over-paying?
Well, ESB Networks for example, says it reads your meter twice a year, but you may easily miss these visits – not least as some meter readers put the “sorry we missed you” card through the letter box without ever knocking on the door. This means that more than two of your bills a year could be estimated.
You can tell if your bill has been estimated because you will see an “E” beside your meter reading on your bill.
You can easily rectify this by sending in your own meter reading. ESB Networks for example, says you can do this by contacting Electric Ireland on 1850 372372.
“This will be captured as a customer read and the customer will be billed to that read,” a spokeswoman says.
Similarly, a spokeswoman for Bord Gáis says, “this is something we strongly encourage and will ensure the accuracy of the billed amount”. You can submit a meter reading with Bord Gáis here: https://www.bordgaisenergy.ie/home/help/how-do-i-submit-a-reading, through its app or through its automated telephone service on 01 6110101.
If you’ve found to have over-paid, ESB says you can either allow the credit to offset your next bill, or request an immediate refund. But then there is also a risk of underpaying; if this is the case your arrears will be added to your next bill or a “suitable arrangement” can be entered into with the customer if this presents an issue.
Rather than face hefty bills in the winter and negligible ones in the summer, many energy users will also opt for a level pay type arrangement, whereby their bills are spread evenly across the year. Depending on your usage in a particular year, you might find that you end up paying too much.
With Bord Gáis, for example, its level pay option bases its bills on your usage over the previous 12 months – or an estimate of this. It then divides this by 12 to work out the monthly payments which are paid by direct debit.
It carries out an annual review of usage – based presumably on your meter readings. If it finds that you’ve actually paid too much but it’s less than €120, you won’t be entitled to claim this back. Rather, it will just be “carried over to the next year and spread evenly over your monthly payments”.
If you’ve overpaid by €120 or more you will be entitled to claim a refund.
And if you opt to switch from level pay to a different type of payment, again your balance will be held on your account and “we’ll use this towards future payments”, Bord Gáis says.
Of course with such an approach there’s always the risk that you’ll have under-paid and will end up owing your provider money.
Remember that you can submit a meter reading online anytime if you set up an online account with your provider.
And if you want to switch and believe your account is in credit, don’t let this stop you switching; Bord Gáis says you will be told of any closing credit on your final bill and issued a refund when you switch.