Millions of people are struggling to stay on top of their financial information as banks and utility providers wage war on paper bills.
Companies are no longer just promoting paperless billing – they are either removing choice in how statements and bills are received, or they are penalising people who order hard copies.
BT recently raised the cost of its paper bills for broadband customers by a fifth – now £3 each. Next year, Nationwide Building Society will stop posting annual savings statements to customers, encouraging them to check their accounts via online banking instead.
Waging war: BT recently raised the cost of its paper bills for broadband customers by a fifth
Cost is cited as the main reason for cutting back on paperwork, but printing and posting a bill costs business no more than 45p. No big company that charges for paper billing does so for less than £1.
Campaigners say the casualties of the relentless march towards digital-only services are vulnerable consumers. These people need financial information to hand rather than on-screen so they can make better decisions and avoid missing payments.
Judith Donovan is chair of the Keep Me Posted campaign that promotes choice in how bills are delivered. She says: ‘It is as if vulnerable people do not matter or they do not have enough money to be considered important by businesses – leaving big brands to call the shots. This is plainly wrong.’Among those affected are the visually impaired, mental health sufferers, people who cannot afford a computer or broadband – or do not want them – and those with no or poor internet access.
More than five million households have no internet access. Many more have the ability to transact online but do not want to because they are worried about fraud and like paper bills.
Donovan adds: ‘The fundamental concern of our campaign is about the right of all consumers to choose how they trade with suppliers – it is not about being pro or anti-digital.’
Now no documents means no proof of ID
Even when people accept the new world of paperless billing, problems arise when it comes to applying for a mortgage or a rental property. Lenders and landlords want original copies of bills for ID purposes that are difficult to stump up when none exist.
Dan Wilson Craw, director of campaign group Generation Rent, says: ‘Renters move frequently – every two to three years. This entails bureaucracy that often demands proof of address, for example in registering with a new GP or library. Having access to paper statements helps renters avoid a lot of stress involved in moving home.’ Families and solicitors are also struggling with the rise of digital legacies. For example, families helping a relative with dementia could search for bills in a drawer. Now, vital information can be locked away in a computer.
Angharad Lynn, senior associate at law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards, says: ‘It is common for bank statements to be online, shares to be uncertificated and for an individual’s financial information to be password protected. The difficulty arises when someone dies or loses capacity as then it can be hard to get all the relevant information.’
BROADBAND STATEMENTS ARE BIGGEST RIP-OFF
Telecoms providers are among the worst culprits for paper bill fees, as all major brands apply them.
Charges are routinely higher than experts estimate the cost of printing and posting a bill.
BT’s penalty for broadband customers is the most stark at £3. Sky customers pay £1.75 a statement while TalkTalk charges £2. Most high street banks encourage paperless billing, though industry rules mean they must provide a free paper statement if requested.
Energy suppliers are also guilty of favouring consumers who comply with paperless billing.
The cheapest tariffs are often reserved for those happy to sacrifice paper bills, effectively penalising households not content to go along.
Customers searching for cheaper energy tariffs can use a handy tool from Citizens Advice that shows whether a supplier offers paper bills.
Lynn says it is common for solicitors to have to submit corrected account information to Revenue & Customs in relation to inheritance tax because assets come to light several months after a person’s death. She adds: ‘Another difficulty can be in relation to ID. We are required to take copies of people’s passports, driving licences and a utility bill from the last three months. Many people simply do not have a utility bill any more.’
Nicola Waldman, partner at firm Hodge Jones & Allen, specialises in wills and probate. She says: ‘Unless attorneys or executors have access to computer records, important bills can be missed.’
Money can also continue to be paid for services no longer used because a person caring for a relative does not know about them – for example, a mobile phone which is no longer in use.
But if a bill lands on the doormat, a carer knows it needs to be dealt with. Waldman adds: ‘There is a greater danger of abuse and fraud when assets are managed online – and where a third party has access to those accounts or passwords and are pretending to be the account holder.’
To share your experiences with the Keep Me Posted campaign, or to request an information pack write to Keep Me Posted, PO Box 72064, London EC4P 4DZ.
If you have a view on paperless bills, email [email protected] or write to: Personal Finance, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TS.