Learning about finance, know your rights
Debit card fees not legal (most of the time)!
According to l’Office de la protection du consommateur (OPC) a merchant cannot charge additional fees when a cardholder uses a debit card; however many Aylmer businesses do charge an extra fee for debit-card transactions.
One is the government’s SAAQ service outlet in the Galeries Aylmer. On top of the regular price, clerks add a small fee when a client uses a debit card. Many clients do use their debit cards because, while SAAQ service centres do accept cheques and cash, they don’t accept regular credit cards.
According to the OPC, extra fees cannot be added to the price at the time of purchase. The advertised price must represent the full amount a consumer pays. At the time of purchase, a merchant cannot tack on an extra 75 cents fee, for example, to the advertised cost. The OPC states that the only extra which can be added to the displayed price are those fees required via government regulation -- and these must be turned over directly to a public authority, as with QST and GST.
Agents at the Aylmer SAAQ service outlet told the Bulletin the debit card fee is not ordered by the SAAQ; this SAAQ outlet has been privatized by Québec and the private company collects this fee. “For a few years the authorized representative providing SAAQ services in Aylmer has offered direct payment (debit) via a private company called Guichet Québec ATM,” explained Mario Vaillancourt, SAAQ spokesperson.
Vaillancourt notes the company running the Aylmer SAAQ initially did not offer direct payment, but after customers requested it they set up the service -- so the public is now dealing with a private business which collects $1.50 per transaction. “Guichet Québec ATM can charge debit card fees and there’s a notice identifying the surcharge; it tells clients they can use other methods of payment free of fees, such as cash, cheque or paying online,” said Vaillancourt.
A sign in the Aylmer SAAQ announces that the debit card fee is collected by Guichet Québec ATM, not by the authorized representative. “It’s not us, it’s Guichet Québec ATM that’s responsible for the fee,” said Nathalie Bergeron, Aylmer’s SAAQ-authorised representative.
“We offer this (as a) service; customers who are unhappy can withdraw money from a nearby bank to pay. We asked the lady in charge (in Aylmer) if we could install the debit card service and she agreed. If people don’t want to use the service there are alternatives,” said Robert Bertrand, from Guichet Québec ATM. “Yes, we are adding the fee. With the money we are paying for the machines, the service, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Jean Jacques Préaux, OPC spokesperson, disagrees. “The merchant must identify all costs in their displayed prices. When an ‘authorized dealer’ does business with the SAAQ the cost for a service is fixed by the SAAQ; it’s too bad for any authorized dealer who hasn’t thought about the extra fee. The dealer needs to think about it when he bids for a contract, period,” said Mr Préaux.
According to the OPC, the clerk may point to a sign or may warn the customer beforehand, but the extra fee is still not legal. “A merchant is not abiding by the law even if they inform you at the register that an additional amount will be charged because of the method of payment you have chosen. Warning you verbally or displaying a sign for that purpose does not entitle the merchant to charge such fees,” said the OPC.
When extra debit card fees are charged, customers can argue that the practice is illegal. Debating a $1.50 fee may seem frivolous, but amounts add up quickly. If any shop charges five customers per day $1.50 for debit card fees, within a year he will have collected $2,737.50. If a merchant refuses to cancel the fee, the OPC encourages the customer to contact them at 819-772-3016. This law also applies to taxi drivers, known to tack on a fee when passengers pay with their debit card.
What about the SAAQ’s $3.30 fee?
The SAAQ charges $3.30 for payment in a service outlet (rather than via mail or on-line), and according the l’Office de la protection du consommateur this fee is legal. “If in the documentation produced by the SAAQ and made available to customers it indicates that one service costs one amount and another service costs another amount, then it’s okay,” said Jean-Jacques Préaux, OPC spokesperson. This is because the service offered at a service centre is different than the one offered online (or by mail), justifying the different cost.