Thursday, August 20, 2009

Getting Robbed At The Gas Pump

I am not going to write about the cost of gas at the pump. Granted, it is going up, at an average of $2.65 a gallon in my area as I write this. No, I am not going to complain about gas going up, or the big oil companies’ profits. This has to do with how we purchase our gasoline.

The next time you use your debit card or credit card to pay for your gasoline purchase at the pump, be sure to get a receipt at the pump. My suggesting you get a receipt is made primarily to those who often do not bother to get their receipt at the pump. Especially for those of you who use a debit card. Look at the amount that you paid for with your debit/credit card. The only amount you see there is for the cost of the fuel you just pumped. No other fees or charges are listed there, right? True, nothing else is listed there, but in many (most?) cases, there will be another charge that is not shown on your receipt.

Now, go home and get online to access your bank account, or your debit/credit card account. Use your cell phone to access your account. In most cases, you will find that not only were you charged for gas you pumped, but you will also discover an additional charge of $50 to $100 from the same location where you pumped your fuel. Do not panic. You are not a victim of identity theft. You have now been rudely introduced to gasoline stations debit/credit card merchandisers (companies that process debit/credit transactions) placing an additional charge on your account to “hold” the funds for the gas you just pumped.

Yes, you only pumped twenty dollars worth of gas using your debit card, and the account information shows that transaction. In most cases, it will also show an additional charge in an amount of anywhere from 50 to 100 dollars. My banks explanation: that is standard practice for most gasoline purchases today. They said that when you use your card at the pump, the debit/credit card merchandisers place a “holding charge” on the account that will be refunded to your account in 3-5 business days. They suggested to avoid the fee, that the purchaser pays inside for the fuel purchase. This “hold” is applied only to fuel purchases made at the pump. In theory, anyway.

I discovered from some of my co-workers that when they have paid for fuel in advance inside the store or station, the “holding charge” is still applied when that store or stations fuel console, cash register, and debit/credit card readers are combined into a single unit that is called a “POS” (point of sale) terminal. The POS terminal identifies fuel purchases made by the consumer and the “holding charge” is still applied.

This practice among the debit/credit card merchandisers recently cost me an overdraft charge from my bank. Talking with others, I have discovered that I am not alone.

Here is what happened to me.

I was going to work, and being in a hurry, I stopped at a local convenience store to get a quick ten bucks worth of gas. I swiped my debit card at the pump, and pumped exactly ten dollars worth of fuel. My accounts balance before pumping the gas was $75.32. So, later at work, when I go to lunch, I pull out my debit card to pay for my lunch bill that was a whopping $5.18. The card was declined. Now wait a minute... I know for a fact that I still have over $65.00 in my account. The card was swiped again, and again was declined. Fortunately, a friend loaned me the money for my lunch. I get on my cell phone and check my account, and discover my balance is negative $54.68 (overdrawn by $9.68, and a $45.00 overdraft fee)!

When I got home, I went online to see what had happened. There was the charge for ten dollars worth of gas from Joe's Super Duper Quik Mart (not the real name), and right below it was another charge from Joe's Super Duper Quik Mart for $75.00! There were no other transactions showing at all. So, I call my bank, sure that someone has ripped me off for 75 bucks. That is when I found out about our good friend the “holding charge”. That is when I was told I needed to go inside to pay for my gas to avoid the “holding charge”. That is when I also found out that there was nothing that could be done about the overdraft charge, even if it was not my fault. I should however, be happy to know that the $75.00 “holding charge” would be refunded to my account in “3 to 5 business days”. That meant my next deposit would result in a balance that was $54.68 less than it should have been, and that ten bucks worth of gas actually cost me $64.68! That meant the refunded “holding charge” of $75.00 amounted to only $10.32 coming back to my account.

I am not the only one this has happened to. One co-worker of mine has his pay direct deposited (as I do), and has the deposit split between his checking and savings accounts. If he sees that his checking account needs additional funds, he transfers money from his savings to his checking. In his case, it was two days before pay day when he pumped gas at a local station, and the “holding charge” of $100.00 caused him to be overdrawn by $10.00. The bank charged him a $45.00 overdraft fee, and then suggested he get overdraft protection for his checking account. Never mind that this was the first (and only) time he had ever been overdrawn.

I know some folks like myself who don't have a whole lot, and live from paycheck to paycheck. Some of these folks have their pay direct deposited to an account at a financial institution, and then use a debit card instead of carrying cash. They certainly cannot afford it if they pump gas, and they are without $50 to $100 for up to five days. If they are hit with an overdraft charge (not everyone can get or afford overdraft protection), then they can have financial problems, problems that they cannot afford for even a short time.

I do have some questions about this practice of “holding charges”:

1. Why is this legal?
2. Why are there no signs or notices informing consumers about these charges and their amounts?
3. How can anyone charge me an additional fee like a “holding charge” without my prior approval or consent?
4. Should there not be a warning to consumers that by using a debit/credit card and then pumping fuel he/she is agreeing to these “holding charges”?
5. Why does a financial institution get away with charging overdraft fees that have occurred when a consumer is unknowingly and/or unwittingly charged a “holding charge” (the banks must know when a purchase is made for fuel)?
6. Why are no consumer advocacy/watchdog groups raising cain about this practice?

True, many financial institutions and businesses such as convenience stores, grocery stores, major retailers, and gas stations have ATM's that can be accessed to get cash, but, not all are always open, and not all are always close by or convenient. Also, I don't think there are too many of us who relish the thought of our family members as well as ourselves going to an ATM late at night to make a cash withdrawal. I surely would prefer to pay an ATM fee, as opposed to being charged a “holding charge” of up to $100.00, but I am not going to go to any ATM if it is late at night.

Furthermore, I know from experience, that when I use my debit card to pay anything, the money is gone out of my account within minutes of the transaction having taken place. My understanding is that the money is withdrawn from the purchasers account and placed into the business’ account immediately. So why the need for a “holding charge”?

Most businesses that sell fuel now require consumers to pre-pay for their fuel or pay at the pump. Gone are the days when we can go to a local store, just pick up the nozzle, and pump. There are just too many drive offs and I understand that businesses cannot afford that, and that it ends up costing the consumer more one way or the other. Most require a cash deposit of $50 or more if the customer is filling up, or that the debit/credit card be left in the store with the attendant or clerk (like I am going to leave my card with a stranger while I fill up). Then again, you could always leave the wife or kids inside to be held hostage while you fill up.

No matter, something about this “holding charge” rip off has to change!

Copyright © 2009 Steve Smith. All Rights Reserved.