Tim Blair


New Criterion



Sunday, August 17, 2003

That was the curt instruction on the nice cardboard box of stodge slapped in front of me by the skirted minion of our market-gouging "national carrier" airline, shortly after I deserted the keyboard.

I did my best to comply, within limits imposed by the incisive elbows of the large fellow in the small seat to my left, and on the right the cheek-swipes of the swill-dispensers galloping up and down the aisles.

It was a short flight, Allah be praised, and but for the fact that the metal detectors at the gateway to all this delight had been turned up to maximum sensitivity, no more exhausting than usual. That is to say, I would have found it a greater pleasure to pull a sled across the Antarctic continent.

At my destination my first task was to hire a vehicle mid-way in cruising speed between the aeroplane and the sled. Here I met again the national scandal that is the collusion between the credit-card operators and the vehicle hirers (and other businesses) that provides the latter with unfettered access to your funds, or your indebtedness, without bothering to tell you about it.

It works like this. You arrive at your destination, heavily expended on airfares and deposits on accommodation etc., and the vehicle hirer informs you that you can't drive his French whorehouse-smelling wreck away unless you first authorise him to debit to your credit card account an unlimited amount of money, in case you should do any damage to their property that they have chosen not to insure against. You protest that this kind of financial imprudence is strictly reserved to governments or Ray Williams, but they show you the finger. You, the consumer, are always free to go home again. If you can find a seat on Qantas.

It is Uncle's guess that these businesses have chosen to reduce their insurance burdens and lower their shop-window prices by transferring the risks to you, the mug punter.

Always keen to be less of a mug tomorrow than I was yesterday, I had arranged with the hirer that I would authorise only the deduction up to the limit of the so-called "excess", a mere couple of grand. This excess applies, of course, only to the kinds of damage that the hirer has chosen to insure against.

Clever old Uncle!

Not clever enough, it seems.

The credit card provider cleared the payment of the "excess", unsurprisingly since no other charges had been made against the account since it was last paid.

I then tried to pay the outstanding cost of the vehicle hire, a modest one grand, on the same card. Rejected!

How can this be? There is no stated limit on this card. The provider must have set a limit, but it would be in the tens of thousands, not down with your common Bankcard accounts.

I suspect the solution to this mystery, which caused the credit card in question to remain a useless dead weight in my wallet for the remainder of my travelling, may have been published in the Australian Financial Review for the weekend just passing.

Ben Sandilands writes on page L2 of a vehicle hirer that "Instead of charging him say $2000, they [the hotel or vehicle hirer] had been "authorised" by Mastercard or Visa to clean him out for a far larger sum in case he wrecked the room or caused a 80-car pile up. If this "authorisation" isn't cancelled by the vendor, it is automatically deducted from his total card limit, leading to very awkward scenes down the track."

In other words, the fact that simple old Uncle had written the sum of $2000 on his credit card payment form had no effect whatever on the sum that the sharks at the other end were prepared to pay Wrecks'R'Us, should Wrecks'R'Us choose to ask them for it.

So remember, financial institutions are just like the tax office. They believe your money isn't yours until they or their partners in crime decide they can spare it. For the time being.

The answer's simple. Go back to cash. And forgo vehicle hire, commercial accommodation (apart from country motels) and the convenience of on-line financial transactions.

In case you're interested, the vehicle did break down, causing me to miss a couple of appointments.

Wrecks'R'Us is refusing to return the hire charge, or pay for the new tyre I bought.

And Our Hand in Your Pocket global credit providers are not in the least interested.