All transactions at petrol pumps do not attract fuel surcharge
Here is a case of how HSBC wrongly billed its credit cardholder and refused to redress the grievance.
Nayana Buch, a practising advocate, had a savings bank account with HSBC's Andheri branch in Mumbai for 10 years. She had also been issued HSBC Classic Visa credit card.
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On February 6, 2009, Buch got her vehicle repaired at Chhagan Mitha's petrol pump. The bill was Rs 30,559, paid through the credit card. The bank added Rs 858.7 as fuel surcharge and billed her Rs 31,417.70 for the vehicle repair.
Since the transaction did not pertain to purchase of fuel but the vehicle was repaired, the transaction in question would not attract fuel surcharge. However, to avoid complications, she paid the entire bill and requested the bank to refund the excess of Rs 858.7 or adjust the amount.
The bank did not reply to Buch's letter. After repeated telephonic reminders, the bank replied that fuel surcharge was applicable to all transaction done at a petrol station regardless of whether the transaction pertained to fuel purchase or not. Hence, the bank maintained the surcharge was applicable and had been correctly levied.
Buch sent a legal notice to HSBC's nodal officer. She argued the service guide published by the bank stated petrol surcharge would be waived off if the fuel purchase exceeded Rs 2,501. As the transaction exceeded this amount and also because it did not pertain to purchase of fuel, she claimed the surcharge had been wrongly levied and ought to be refunded.
The bank claimed its electronic system did not provide for drawing a distinction between purchase of fuel and other transactions at petrol pumps. So, the surcharge would automatically get added to all transactions done at petrol pumps, and this would have to be paid by the customer. To add insult to injury, the bank jumped to the conclusion the disputed amount had not been paid, and demanded penal charges of Rs 4,848.8 for the so-called failure to pay the surcharge.
Buch filed a complaint before the Mumbai Suburban District Consumer Forum stating how the bank had demanded penal charges when the disputed amount had already been paid. She argued the bank cannot be permitted to dishonestly levy charges and get unjust enrichment and monetary benefits under the guise of the billing process being electronic.
In its defence, HSBC claimed for transactions up to Rs 399 at petrol pumps a fuel surcharge of Rs 10 was applicable; for transaction between Rs 400 and 4,000 the surcharge was waived off; and for transactions exceeding Rs 4,000 surcharge of 2.5 per cent of the transaction value was applicable. The bank argued since the transaction exceed Rs 4,000, surcharge had been correctly levied.
J L Deshpande, president of the Consumer Forum, while delivering the judgment observed the terms and conditions were clear with respect to levy of surcharge for purchase of fuel but was silent in respect of other transactions at petrol pumps. The Forum also noted that the transaction slip for the repair charges at Chhagan Mitha's pump did not include any surcharge, yet the same was added by the bank, claiming it was done by an electronic process. The Forum indicted the bank for suppression of material facts and engaging in unfair trade practice.
Accordingly, by its order dated June 16, 2012, the Forum ordered HSBC to refund Rs 859 (rounded off) with an interest of 12 per cent per annum from February 19, 2009, till the actual payment, plus Rs 25,000 towards compensation and costs.
Consumers should be careful about banks misusing their trust and surreptitiously levying charges which are unjustified and illegal.
The author is a consumer activist