Banks are failing in their obligations to cancel direct debits

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It seems everything is a subscription these days. If I scan through my bank statements, there are recurring payments not just for our mortgage and basic bills but also for everything from Spotify, Netflix and Audible to Aussie Farmers Direct for the basis of our weekly grocery shop and the local swimming pool. Even the balances for my public transport card and toll road account are automatically topped up.

I'm not alone. Zuora's Subscription Economy Index from June 2017 suggests US-based subscription businesses are growing five times faster than US retail sales - 15.2 per cent a year versus 3.4 per cent. Granted, Zuora is a software company that provides a subscription platform for businesses, so it's not an impartial observer, but there's definitely something in it - and it would be similar in Australia.

Of course, businesses love subscriptions because it's regular revenue they can rely on. Sure, some customers cancel from time to time but most don't, so a subscription business model evens out the peaks and troughs of cash flow. Combine it with auto-renew, and you're on to a winner!

It's the same reason that most charities don't send people out on to the street or door to door to collect cash donations - they want people to pledge to regular giving. (It's better to go direct though, so the charity doesn't have to pay a cut to the agency).

But is the shift to the so-called subscription economy such a great thing for consumers? If it means more revenue for businesses, that means consumers are spending more without making a clear decision to do so.

If a substantial amount of your monthly spending is pre-committed, it gives you less freedom to manoeuvre if extra expenses come up or you want to boost your savings. It's disempowering, and this is a particular concern given almost one in three Australians report financial stress.

Yes, some services are only available through subscription, and there's a serious convenience factor to automated payment especially if you're forgetful and disorganised and might forget to pay your bills. But if you're trying to budget, reviewing your direct debits is a good place to start.

The problem is cancelling direct debits can be a pain. Most of the time, banks fob you off by telling you to contact the merchant.

If you listen, you're at the mercy of individual businesses' goodwill and efficiency. Some businesses such as Netflix make it easy to pause a subscription. Other businesses make it as hard as possible for the customer to leave - the notice periods are unreasonably long and you have to call by phone during office hours and endure a hard sell or, worse, attend in person and fill out a form. Gyms are notorious for this.

But many people don't know that banks are obliged to process cancellations themselves if the direct debit was set up with a BSB and account number. If the bank tells you they can't, or that you should contact the merchant, they're in breach of the banking code.

Unfortunately it seems many bank staff don't know this either. The Banking Code Compliance Monitoring Committee recently published the results of a mystery shopping exercise involving 15 bank brands (across 12 banking groups). The mystery shoppers either phoned bank contact centres or visited bank branches in and around Melbourne to inquire whether they could cancel a direct debt with a merchant such as a gym, and the results were published in the report Improving banks' compliance with direct debit cancellation obligations.

Most bank staff gave wrong advice. In 54 per cent of cases, the staff either told the mystery shopper they should contact the merchant first (or it would be easier) or stated that the bank could not cancel a direct debit at all.

This was better than in 2008, where nearly four out of five bank staff gave the wrong advice or 2011 where two out three staff did. But it's still unacceptably high.

Staff in contact centres gave the correct advice more than half the time, while staff in branches nearly always gave the wrong information.

Seven banks told the committee they collectively received more than 15,500 direct debit cancellation requests a month. The report suggests the real figure is likely to be much higher as five banks were unable to provide data, including one major bank.

Failing to cancel a direct debit when requested can have devastating consequences for someone in financial trouble - they might wind up overdrawing their account or having transactions dishonoured, resulting in additional fees and charges from both the bank and the merchant, and loss of funds needed for other purposes.

Unfortunately direct debits set up using the long number on a credit or debit card are not covered by the banking code. The Banking Code Compliance Monitoring Committee has recommended banks work with card providers to find a way to let consumers cancel these direct debits with the bank rather than the merchant, but so far only one unnamed bank has done so.

The report states there are more than 50 million direct debit transactions a month covered by the code. Committee chief executive Sally Davis told me she does not have a figure for how many direct debit transactions there are through credit and debit cards.

I believe it would be higher still, since the card number is printed on the card but looking up your BSB and account number usually requires a few extra steps - time you might not have when you're on the phone to a provider or signing up to a service through your smartphone.

The report from the committee makes several recommendations for the banks, from publishing clear guidance on their websites to adding functionality to online banking.

In the meantime, consumers should use direct debit sparingly, and sign up with their BSB and account number rather than their credit card where possible. If the need arises, call the contact centre to cancel it rather than popping into the local branch.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the editor of Money. Facebook: @caitlinfitzsimmons. Twitter: @niltiac

This story Banks are failing in their obligations to cancel direct debits first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.