Revenue owe YOU money, get it now…

I received this e-mail this morning. It looked like one of your normal rubbishy chain e-mails, especially as the heading was “Revenue owe YOU money, get it now… THIS IS ACTUALLY TRUE”. Normally the “THIS IS ACTUALLY TRUE” is a dead give-away.

However, the contents of this particular chain e-mail is correct. Maybe slightly exaggerated, but definitely it’s something that everyone should do. The Fine Gael Party almost touched upon this advice in their Taxback Campaign.

In light of recent news reports and subsequent adverts on bus stops/trains/billboards, it appears the Revenue Commis owe us a lot of money. If you need a more precise figure, try EUR1.2 billion, over the past five years.
In order to see if you are owed money, you’ll need to contact the Revenue on 1890 333 425. There is a voice activated service when it answers and it asks for your PPS number. When you give this, it asks what service you want, simply say “None of these” and wait for an operator to continue. Ask him/her for a P21 Balancing Statement and get it back-dated to 2002 or as far back as possible. They will check if all your details are correct and send them out. If you are owed any money, you get a tasty cheque from them within days. On the other hand (and don’t shoot me for this!!), if you owe them money, it will be taken from you in the form of a reduction in your tax credits in the years to come.

In case you need any more encouragement to do this, nearly everyone in my immediate area did this and so far three people have received back tasty cheques for EUR386, EUR837 & over EUR1,400 each. I’m still waiting on my reply. Now tell me you can’t bother picking up the phone and calling them….

Also anyone renting can claim a tax credit for EUR330 which will lower the amount of tax you pay and this can also be back dated to as far back as you have been renting in current or previous tenancies. Go to www.revenue.ie, click on the ‘Tax & Duty’ link on the left hand column, move down to the ‘Personal Credits’ and click on ‘Rent Tax Credit’, print the form, fill it in and send to your local tax office (not the Dublin one). Anything refundable this year will be given back by your employer in your payslips. Refunds for last year, the year before, etc will be refunded by cheque.
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Scrap Credit Card Surcharges?

For a few years now, there have been numerous calls for the abolition of the credit card surcharges imposed by many online sellers just for the privilege of paying them even more money for their products. Those making payments online to companies such as Ticketmaster, Aer Lingus, Ryanair and others may find themselves subject to an extra charge of around 1.5pc to 2pc. Many holiday companies also impose these charges for consumers booking holidays online.

While the rules between the banks and retailers do not allow charges which discriminate against people paying by credit card, there is legislation allowing some surcharges, which means the matter is not clear cut which means in some cases retailers are perfectly entitled to add on handling fees.

The subject of this credit card charge is now the responsibility of the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority (IFSRA) since 2003, but still nothing has changed since then. The only comment I can find from them as a spokesperson saying: “The office is in discussion with the banks and we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked.” He said the office would continue to press the banks with a view to eliminating these charges.

In 2003 it was quoted that of 63m credit card transactions, there were only 200 complaints related to this annually. So it’s not really a problem then? Or do people just accept that they’ve no choice but to pay the charges, and that there’s no point in complaining?

The helpful people at the European Consumers Centre said that if consumers agree to pay the surcharge, it is their choice. Excellent advice in a situation where these charges are levied on purchasing items online where there is little alternative.

In 2004, the Fine Gael party, via their Ripoff.ie website, called for IFSRA to abolish these credit card surcharges. A survey they did found surcharges ranging from 2% to 5%. In 2005, the Consumer Association of Ireland and the Irish Bankers Federation issued a joint press release calling for these charges to be dropped.

Now, in October 2006, this article in the Sunday Business Post brings alive the issue of the scrapping of these credit card surcharges. Unfortunately, there’s nothing new there, and it’s the same people making the same points.

Let’s face it; the credit card surcharge is a charge for convenience. We pay more in our local Spar for items instead of driving all that way to a larger supermarket, so isn’t it somewhat reasonable to pay for the privilege of not having to queue at the cinema for tickets, or to have the schlep all the way into town to buy concert tickets?

While I’d obviously be all in favour of getting rid of a charge that makes online purchasing cheaper, I think that it might be more realistic to ask that more realistic boundries be put on how these charges are levied.

It’s absolutely nuts to have to pay a surcharge on a per ticket basis to Ticketmaster since the administration overhead would be the same if I buy 1 ticket or buy 10. And it’s even more ridiculous to be paying these administration costs on a per ticket basis to airlines who are providing you with the facility of printing your own tickets. Where’s the administration there?

We’re told that these charges are to defray the “substantial costs” of processing credit and debit card transactions. Yet, these are all automated transactions that in all likely cost cents at a time, yet we’re paying large multiples of that. It would be interesting to see the profit that these companies make on credit card transaction revenue alone.

Finally, to show the ridiculousness of it all, some airlines doesn’t charge transaction fees on tickets bought for infants. Presumably though the same amount of processing is required in the background, so it shows the cynicism with which these fees are charged.

Why go for an all-out scrapping of this charge, which we’re most unlikely to be successful in getting? Maybe if we can ensure clarity and fairness in how these “convenience charges” are levied, it could be much fairer, with the companies still getting their money, but the consumers also having to pay less.

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Recommended – PriceWatch in the Irish Times (Monday)

When Value Ireland was started in 2003, the Irish Times was one of the few national newspapers which provided the least amount of coverage to the perceived phenomonen of “Rip Off Ireland” at the time. By extension, they weren’t interested in giving any coverage to Value Ireland, unlike some of their competitors.

Things have changed. The Irish Times now has a PriceWatch section every Monday in their printed edition. The full page normally covers a feature article regarding consumer affairs in Ireland, and then has smaller sections devoted to reviews of a particular kind of product, e-mails from readers, and a section devoted to items given either a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”.

The PriceWatch section is definitely worth a quick read each week to see what’s going on. It has actually taken over, in my opinion, from the previous leading position which the Irish Independent Business Section on a Thursday had when it came to consumer affairs in the national press.

You can access the PriceWatch column online for free via the Ireland.Com website. Look to the left hand side of the page in the Weekly Index section for PriceWatch on a Monday. Unfortuntately, I can’t provide a direct link – well, here’s a direct link for Monday October 23rd.

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Me, 3, and problems with phone companies

After having numerous issues personally with the mobile phone company 3, including the bizarre situation where they claimed that there were “implied terms” in their contracts, I’m glad to see the Office of Director of Consumer Affairs coming out with some guidelines on phone contracts.

I presume these are prompted by the Smart Telecom debacle recently and the apparent inactivity by Comreg until it was too late, but they’ll apply to mobile phone companies as well as fixed line providers, and presumably broadband suppliers as well.

Comreg, as I discovered myself, will not assist you with any contractual matters between yourself and your phone provider. By providing this help, presumably the ODCA will now provide guidance to consumers should they need it in the future.

The clarity on where Irish consumers could go with complaints about their phone service providers was badly needed.

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Competition in the Electricity Market

Today, the Competition Authority have announced that they are to investigate Ireland’s soaring electricity and gas prices. Specifically with regards to electricity prices, ESB prices are set to go up in January 2007 by 20%.

Here’s a tip for the Competition Authority. According to Value Ireland research, there is no competition for Irish consumers in the electricity market. You can buy from the ESB, and that’s it. Read the research article here.

Irish domestic consumers now pay 51% more for their electricity than the EU average. From January, Irish consumers will pay about 17.5% per cent more for electricity than their British counterparts. Ireland could have the third highest electricity prices in the EU by January with this most recent price increase.

We’re told that this is because of increasing costs of the raw material used to create electricity – oil and gas. Yet we’ve seen the wholesale prices of these materials fall recently. And if that was really the case, why have we seen electricity prices increasing about four times as fast in Ireland as price rises in the 15 countries of the pre May 2004 EU, according to figures published by Eurostat earlier this year.

But wait a minute. We’re told in a Deloitte report that Irish consumers are forking out an extra €100m on their electricity bills due to poor management at the ESB. The debacle at the Rhodes powerstation is a great example of this poor management. We’ve also been told in the press that wages for some individuals working at the ESB Poolbeg generating station in Dublin running to €140,000 including overtime!

These huge costs within the ESB are on top of the €77m dividend that the ESB paid to the Government in 2005, which brought dividend payments from the ESB over the previous three years to €175m.

So we’re paying higher costs because of the inefficiency of the ESB. Yet the ESB expected in 2005 to make a profit of around €300m.

The numbers here are staggering. Is there nothing that can be done to address the numerous issues here in order for us to have lower electricity costs?

The Government will claim that there’s little they can do in the short term. But there is! The Government currently charges 13.5% VAT on electricity compared to 6% in the UK. This provides a further €360m annually to the Government finances. Even reducing this VAT rate to the same as the UK would save Irish consumers nearly €100 per year.

Finally, there is a tiny flicker of light at the end of the tunnel, as expensive as that may cost us. It is expected that the Public Service Obligation (PSO) will be removed from all electricity bills in 2007. This saving is a result of the steadily improving competitive position of wind power, which has resulted in a reduction in the annual PSO levy imposed on domestic consumers. This levy will be set at zero in 2007 and will result in annual domestic electricity bills falling by whopping €11.

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“Rip Off Ireland” and Consumer Affairs on the web

Apart from the Boards.ie “Rip Off Ireland” Forum, Value Ireland was the very first internet site to address the concerns of Irish consumers.

The launch of Value Ireland in 2003 attracted a huge amount of attention, from internet users and the media alike. This can be seen in the media coverage the site received at that time.

Some media outlets were so keen on getting a story about Value Ireland into the paper that they didn’t even waste time speaking to me and simply copied and pasted bits off the website.

Value Ireland was quickly followed by RipoffIreland.org, Ripoff-Ireland.net, SoapBox.ie, RipoffIrl.com, RipoffCard.com, IrishShopper.com, ShoppingBill.com, IrelandsCheapest and a few others that don’t come to mind right now. Most of these are gone now, or are rarely updated.

What is it they say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”? In that case, I was most flattered by the decision of Fine Gael to create their version of Value Ireland. Ripoff.ie came along in early 2004, and burned brightly for a while before they too realised that people don’t really care all that much about complaining any more. Obviously no votes in that any more.

All of these websites took the tone of focusing on the negatives of the perceived “Rip Off Ireland”. Value Ireland continues better than ever, focusing on the positives, and providing helpful advice to consumers on how to act in the consumer environment we’re facing today.

Value Ireland is also, to a certain extent, filling the void left by any of the established Irish consumer agencies (Consumers Association of Ireland, Office of Director of Consumer Affairs, National Consumer Agency) in providing consumer advice online to Irish consumers. And it’s intended to continue and strengthen this into the future.

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