ABC CANBERRA AFTERNOONS WITH LISH FEJER
FRIDAY, 24 MARCH 2017
SUBJECT: ‘Keep Me Posted’ Campaign
LISH FEJER: How full is your mailbox these days? Not your email, but your actual letterbox. The one the postie drops the mail into. What do you get in the post? We write letters less, but you’re lucky to even get a bill in the mail these days, unless – increasingly – you pay for the privilege. More and more companies such as banks and phone companies and electricity companies are streamlining their processes. They're moving away from paper bills to give them to you electronically. You can still opt-in to get the paper bills, but lots of companies are now charging for the service.
I've got a list in front of me here for many of the companies that are charging for paper bills. Some of them up to $2 per bill. Or $2.20! Even more! $2.75 for some energy bills! Would you pay for a bill? Is that fair you have pay that to get the bill in paper?
Andrew Leigh is the federal Member for Fenner and Kellie Northwood is the Executive Director of the 'Keep Me Posted' campaign –looking at this whole idea of having to pay for paper bills and they join me in the studio.
Kellie, how many people don't realise that they could be paying – what looks like a small amount – but every month, and for a lot of people that's a large chunk?
KELLIE NORTHWOOD, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR – KEEP ME POSTED: We think more and more people are realising and more and more people are getting upset about it. We are looking at fees of $2.50, $2.75. We are also seeing $6.70! We're seeing $3.20. It's such a range that it's hard to understand what it's all about.
FEJER: What are they saying this money is for?
NORTHWOOD: Well, we have written to them all, and the general response is that this is the cost of doing business. We challenge that. We went back and had a look at how much it cost businesses to pay to post. They pay a lot less than you and I do. And also how much it costs to print it and put it in an envelope. It costs them about 88 cents a unit. So when we are looking at fees starting at a $1.25 and going all the way up to about $6 – averaging about $2.50 – we're arguing that they're maybe double-dipping.
FEJER: Why is there such disparity between the fees?
NORTHWOOD: We can't really speak for the organisations, but we are calling on government to help us with this because they can charge what they like. There's no legislative protection. There's no consumer law protection. So we need to talk more about this up the hill.
FEJER: We've got this sort of charge – a nominal fee to get it by mail, in the post on paper. Who does this affect most?
NORTHWOOD: Our most vulnerable. We have studies that show that people 65 are least likely to be internet users. 57 per cent of people in low-income households don't have ready access to the internet in their homes. The response from some big corporations is to suggest they go to the public library. It's fairly humiliating to expect that we now have to manage our finances in public libraries. So it really is the most vulnerable. New migrants, people speaking English as a second language, and that's who we're trying to give a voice to.
FEJER: And people who can't remember a password to get into their bank! I think it probably affects a lot more people. Is it visible on your bill? Do you see that you are being charged for a paper statement?
NORTHWOOD: It is. It's normally written as a separate line. So at the very least people know that they're being charged. We are still investigating. Because the more forums we attend and the more people we speak to in the community, there are more stories, so we are collecting all of those.
FEJER: Now Andrew Leigh, federal Member for Fenner, do you believe it's fair?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER Well for me it’s a social justice issue. You look at people who are not accessing their bills online. They tend to be people who are older, who have lower literacy skills, who might be more disadvantaged in other ways. Somebody from St. Vincent de Paul came up to me after the forum we organised at Belconnen Library today and talked about the example of people sleeping rough where it's incredibly hard to get them hooked up to online services. There are savings that we've made as more and more of us go online. And many of us like doing our transactions online. But I don't see why those who don't ought to be penalised.
FEJER: What drove you to be involved in the campaign?
LEIGH: As I said, a social justice campaign-
FEJER: Yeah, it is social justice.
LEIGH: And I'm somebody who cares deeply about the way in which policies affect the most disadvantaged. This is policies of governments – governments in some cases are charging more for people to get paper statements – utilities companies – we can't go without water and electricity –banking services, telecommunications, right across the board where we're seeing this two-tier system.
One of the things that hit me most about Kellie’s comments to the forum today is when she said if you look at some of those elite cards – if you're getting one of those gold cards or a platinum card – often there's no extra that you pay for paper bills. That just brings home the real unfairness of the whole thing. For the basic services, people are being slugged for paper, and then at the top of the scale you can get your paper statements for nothing.
FEJER: Is the legislative protection that Kellie mentioned earlier something that you'll now push for at a federal level?
LEIGH: I think that there's a number of way to be pushing this. One of the ways is just for people to individually ask to opt out of electronic statements. The other way is to demand that firms change their policy and stop charging more for paper statements. The third way, as you say, is to change the law. We need to be pushing on all of those fronts in order to make sure that people get a fair deal. I would like to be clear, engaging online is terrific. I find it incredibly convenient to do a lot of my banking and bill paying online. But I don't think that those who struggle to access those online services ought to be paying a penalty for it.
FEJER: A text from Ron say that, "So if there is a saving from going electronic they pass on none of their savings, and then overcharge for what they have been doing for free for years. It's just a rip off!" Thanks Ron, what do you think? It's basically what it is.
NORTHWOOD: He's absolutely right and until there's some scrutiny and some pressure applied by the people, and also by conversations such as this, unfortunately it’s the super- profit companies that are really profiteering from it and it comes back to what I was saying before – has the world gone mad? Is this what we're really accepting?
FEJER: Do you reckon they are making huge profits from these fees?
LEIGH: Certainly if you look at return on equity in the banking sector, it’s looking pretty healthy at the moment. One of the things that you notice if you look right across the Australian economy is a very high degree of market concentration – which again goes to the corporate bottom line. So in many cases these are savings through technology that aren't being passed back to consumers but are being kept for the corporate bottom line.
FEJER: What should those savings be spent on?
NORTHWOOD: From the banks and the telco's and the utilities? If indeed, the digital transition is where they want their consumers to head, by all means, and eventually what their reported costs of doing business through paper billing, what that ends up being then people can transition through and they can share the savings across that process.
FEJER: So the folk that are most affected, how can they not pay the fee?
LEIGH: ‘Keep Me Posted’ has suggested letter templates that people can write, and also suggestions on how people can contact their utilities providers in order to ask to opt-out.
FEJER: When you say opt-out, does it mean opt-out of paying the fee?
LEIGH: Sorry, you ask first of all to opt-out of paying the fee. Secondly, asking for a big substantive change. But in an era in which the competition watchdog is warning us against phishing scams that often come in email attachments, I think it's pretty unreasonable to say that everyone has to get their bills through email attachments or else they pay more. We heard one story today from a woman whose husband has dementia and he'd been using a credit card whose bills were coming through on email. She hadn't been paying that credit card because she didn't know about because there was nothing arriving in the letterbox and suddenly she was slugged with all of these late fees. Again, it just isn't fair.
FEJER: What were some of the other issues that were brought up today – because you had quite a crowd?
LEIGH: I actually brought up one of my own. When I signed up for a new credit card that said it would charge extra for paper statements, I thought I'll save money, I won't get the paper statements. They sent their statements in an attachment format that meant that my email provider immediately spammed them and trashed them in a way that I couldn't access them again. So after about six weeks, I was a bit puzzled, been using the credit card, hadn’t got my statement, called them up and they said, "Oh well, you're late! So we've slugged you the late payment fee and we're charging you interest every day. You better get on and pay it." And I said, "Could you pop something in the mail and tell me what I owe and how to pay it?" And they said, "No, no. We can send you the email again." I said, "No, you don't get it, it's not coming through the email system. It's going to be deleted again." They said, "Alright, we'll send it in the mail. You'll just have to pay the interest in the meantime." So eventually I had to pay for the paper bills, and it just struck me that if you can't even get your act together to send me the bill in a format that my email provider won't consign to the spam folder, there's something wrong.
FEJER: I hope they weren't charging for the paper were they?
LEIGH: Yes, yes. Then they charged me a fee for the paper statements.
NORTHWOOD: It's so infuriating. We did have some great stories shared this morning and we're still laughing because it's ludicrous. But they're also heartbreaking stories. We have stories from people living in retirement villages who are not given the option of multiple providers. They have one telco provider and there is no choice to hunt around. To say, "Well I want a paper bill so I'll go to the one that doesn't charge me for that." They have no opportunity, so they simply have to sit there and either get confused about their billing because they don't understand some of those finer digital requirements, or simply get slugged the fee.
FEJER: Ian from Giralang says, "Dear Lish, what about the charge from the service providers on other bills for the payment processing fee of 0.5 per cent whether paper or online bills. What's the payment for? They're all part of the bank hidden payment things that we see."
NORTHWOOD: One of the greatest concerns as the campaigns grown and it’s moved around the country over the past 12 months is that it establishes a precedent. So what if we accept that we're allowed to be charged for our bills and statements if they are provided in paper form? What we are starting to hear more and more stories about is fees for digital bills and statements. So, let's just follow the analysts and say that in five to ten years’ time there will be no paper bills, the precedent is established that all billing can be now charged back to the customer. It's a legal requirement to provide me with a bill so I can then pay it accordingly. There's a lot of legalities around all this that the campaign really is looking at.
FEJER: Ann says, “Ebills and transactions also require the latest operating systems and browsers – my old computer has not kept pace with the bank's systems and now I can't look at my statement. More disadvantage.”
LEIGH: Ann’s completely right. It's one of those things where again you're advantaged if you are checking your email at work where your employer pays for the latest software. But, if you are getting by on the pension, you might not always be able to afford to keep things updated. You might not necessarily have all of those skills. I know my colleague Tim Hammond, the Shadow Minister for Consumer Affairs, has been talking about this in terms of how differentially it affects people across the population.
FEJER: Finally, can government apply pressure on companies to move these charges – well, remove them entirely would be ideal – or at least reduce the cost?
LEIGH: They certainly can. The government can also be a leader in this. If you want to opt out of getting your business tax statements electronically and want to get them by paper, you can't do that with the MyGov website, you have to actually make a phone call. The government itself is one of the providers that is putting a lot of pressure on people in order to get rid of those paper statements, at the same time as those government agencies are saying, "Look out for those dodgy emails, they might be trying to scam you." It doesn't seem a particularly consistent message.
FEJER: If people want to find out more they can head to...
NORTHWOOD: www.keepmeposted.org.au and start ringing up their service providers and use your own voice to say, "We think this is ridiculous!"
FEJER: What if they get a sort of automated voice at the other saying, "There's nothing I can do"? Which is often the case?
NORTHWOOD: We encourage letter-writing. We encourage talking to your local members, writing to your Senators. We really need to have this as a grassroots campaign. As we've moved through the campaign over the past 12 months we've realised that this is going to be one of those people-power debates, and that's exciting in itself. It's a great opportunity for Australia.
FEJER: Well, thanks for getting it started and bringing it to our attention. We don't know how many people it's affected as you've just mentioned. Thanks for coming in.
LEIGH: Thanks for the conversation, Lish.
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