Bills for Bills

Reporter: Helen Wellings

It's difficult enough in these tough economic times for many people to pay their household bills. But now, for virtually any regular bill you pay, you're likely to be hit with extra fees and charges that can easily add to hundreds of dollars a year. Consumer reporter, Helen Wellings investigates how we're all being cornered into payment methods which suit businesses, but are breaking the household budgets.

Slugged a fat fee just for paying your bill! These days more and more companies supplying our everyday needs like power, phone, rental accommodation, apartment levies, gym and club memberships are forcing us to pay extra every time we pay a bill. In fact a whole industry's sprung up charged with charging us to charge us.

"Australia's been going down a track of trying to force people on to things that are cheaper for businesses and charging us extra if we're not going to do that. I mean we've seen that for many years with bank charges" says Nicole Rich.

It used to be so simple and cheap - pay direct by cash or cheque, no fees, no hidden charges. But lately we've been inundated with complaints about crippling account fees levied by intermediary companies we've never even heard of - collection agents who receive your payments on behalf of the biller - yet we're hit with fees just to make it easier and profitable for companies.

"I'd like to pay cash but in the bottom of the letter in big bold writing saying we do not accept cash… I cannot pay by cash which I find unheard of" says Ben.

Ben and Christina Garvan of Sydney always drop in to their local real estate agent to pay their monthly rent in cash or personal cheque, so they were astounded by this order .. Don't pay us your rent direct anymore - pay it into RE Connect oneCard "conveniently, easily and electronically". But the small print rider, they'll have to pay an account keeping fee of $3.20 monthly, plus a convenience fee of 1.32% of the payment.

"If we were to pay through this company then we have to pay an extra $24 a month in fees and charges that's another $288 a year which is basically the equivalent of an electricity bill or basically almost the same as a rent for the week…it's crazy" says Ben.

Ben says it leaves the only alternatives - money order and bank cheque, but that will cost from $5 to $12 each time - even sending a weekly personal cheque to RE Connect would cost $2.20 per month in stamps.

"Every way I looked at through paying any electronic fashion whether it was BPay, direct debit, visa debit, it didn't matter they were going to charge me a fee."

Queensland pensioner, Carl Stowe says for 10 years, Optus has mailed his mobile phone bill and he's paid at the post office. Now he'll be penalised $2.20 for receiving a paper bill, a charge he can't afford.

"There's a lot of pensioners in my position that can't read the internet and can't go on to a webpage…how are they going to pay?" asks Carl.

"$2.20 for each paper statement is excessive. I don't think it's costing Optus that much to send a paper statement. That said, they're deliberately making it more expensive to force people off paper statements and that's why it so unfair for people that really don't have any other choices" says Nicole.

Consumer Action Law Centre's Nicole Rich says late payment fees on certain bills have been banned - a reason for our government to crack down on companies making profits charging payment fees at our expense.

"All of these sorts of charges can be inappropriate where customers don't have any real ability to change their behaviour and they're just stuck paying these extra repayments… We could be doing more to protect people from some of these sorts of charges" adds Nicole.

"It was only 85 cents but when you multiply that by all the people that are customers, that's a lot of money." Lee Grigg of South Australia believes she being railroaded by 3 Mobile, which is charging customers a direct debit fee.

"To me its sneaky, to encourage you to use your credit card one month and the next month to add that one line in about there is going to be a charge to use your credit card, to me that's wrong" says Lee.

Many people don't even realise they're paying these so-called "convenience" charges or "account" keeping fees on top of their bill - and if they haven't agreed to them and there are no other free payment options why should they pay the fees. Another looming problem - if you have a dispute about your bill, it becomes far more complicated getting a refund when a third party's involved.

"Disgusted, absolutely disgusted because cash is not worth anything these days, why do I have to pay more to pay cash." Jo Wilson of Western Australia didn't want to pay gym fees for herself, her partner and daughter by direct debit from her credit card account. Instead, she offered cash, 3 months in advance. Fitness First said cash would cost alot extra.

"If we pay three months in advance it's actually going to cost us $10 a week for each of us rather than get direct debited… If you look at a normal fee of $22.95 would be if you are getting it direct debited. If we wanted to pay cash it would cost us $33.50… So what you are actually looking at is an extra $10.50 a week for each of us so that's an extra $40 a week for four of us to join a gym" explains Jo.

And pensioner Carl Stowe fears fees will get heftier, like bank fees, once we get used to them. No doubt he's right.