These ads depict using Visa and Barclaycard plastic to pay for small transaction amounts, such as using your credit card to pay for your lunch, and paying by card for a haircut. But these TV commercials representation does not quite match the reality on the ground in the UK, where many cardholders appear to be continually taken advantage of and are becoming frustrated by small merchants shops who either apply a surcharge, or insist on the minimum spend for payments by card. This reality is in direct conflict with Visa, MasterCard and Barclaycard's overall strategy, namely for card payments to replace all cash payments, hence the recent introduction of contactless payments in the UK. Contactless cards are not just designed for your convenience but to allow the card brands to soak up the small payment transaction space.
Can Merchants Apply a Minimum Spend or a Surcharge in the UK?
I have been speaking with Visa, MasterCard and Barclaycard about this, and to be honest the answer is not clear cut as I thought it would be, mainly thanks to complicated European Laws and UK Laws, and even local area laws comes into the equation.
A Merchant must not:
• Add any surcharges to Transactions, unless local law expressly requires that a Merchant be permitted to impose a surcharge.
A Merchant must not directly or indirectly require any Cardholder to pay a surcharge or any part of any Merchant discount or any contemporaneous finance charge in connection with a Transaction. A Merchant may provide a discount to its customers for cash payments. A Merchant is permitted to charge a fee (such as a bona fide commission, postage, expedited service or convenience fees, and the like) if the fee is imposed on all like transactions regardless of the form of payment used, or as the Corporation has expressly permitted in writing. For purposes of this Rule:
1. A surcharge is any fee charged in connection with a Transaction that is not charged if another payment method is used.
2. The Merchant discount fee is any fee a Merchant pays to an Acquirer so that the Acquirer will acquire the Transactions of the Merchant
However these regulations are trumped by law, EU, UK and even local laws. For example airlines, holiday companies and large concert ticket providers cite legalise to get around these regulations, applying surcharges to their card payments. Sometimes they hide the surcharge as an administration fee, which is fine for a business which don’t offer a cash payment alternative. I thought this could be a key point, as small shops obviously are accepting cash payments along side card payments.
UK local legislation allows surcharging on credit cards which takes precedence over Visa rules and regulations - Visa Europe
So after doing further digging on the legal side, it appears merchants are indeed allowed to make charges under law, remember the card schemes state law trumps their regulations, however I found another angle on legal side, in that merchants need to clearly advertise their surcharges.
Since the 28th February 1991, in accordance with the Credit Cards (Price Discrimination) Order 1990, retailers have been allowed to apply these charges to the cardholder.
It may help you to know that customers are protected under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which states that is a criminal offence to mislead the customer regarding the cost/charges of a purchase. Retailers are therefore required to clearly advertise and advise their intentions to the customer before applying this charge.
Now I do feel the merchant’s pain in that the cost (transaction charge imposed on them) in taking small transactions really hits their profit margins, but hey this is the price of having the ability to accept card payments at your business, no one is forces any business to offer the acceptance of card payments.
Here’s the thing that really bugs me about this. There are too many merchants in the UK which are running a muck with these charges, some are ignorant of these requirements, and some are actually sticking two fingers up at the regulations they sign up to, I know because shop owners get very nervous when I ask question their surcharging. So what do you think merchants are doing about the Payment Card Security regulations, specifically Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)? The next time you have fraudulent transactions on your credit card and don’t understand how your card details were stolen. Know it is more than likely than not, that your details were stolen from a merchant which held your card details, because the merchant was not following card security regulations and adequately protecting your card details while in their care. By the way merchants certainly cannot hide behind law when comes to their compliance with card payment security regulations, and specifically PCI DSS compliance.
It is worth noting that we do not have any breach disclosure laws in the UK, it is never in the interest of merchants, banks and card brands to publicly disclosure payment card breaches. But I can tell you card payment breaches of UK cards in significant numbers are occurring due to UK merchant security negligence, it's happening behind closed doors, and it's happening far too often.