The digital payments revolution was meant to make things better for the consumer. No more banknotes falling out of your back pocket; no more waiting days on end for cheques to clear; no more missing your train because the tourist at the front of the queue doesn’t know how to use the ticket machine.
Or it was for me, anyway — I’m fully signed up to the digital revolution, you see. Not only do I rarely carry cash, but I hardly ever leave the house with my wallet. I’m one of the estimated 8m Britons who use their smartphones to make contactless payments.
But smart though my phone is, it is not infallible. And like many new technologies, digital payments solve some problems, but they also create new, unforeseen ones. A paper ticket might be inherently easier to lose than a phone, but at least it doesn’t just die on you whenever it feels like it.
It all started one October afternoon last year, when a bus inspector asked to see my £1.50 ticket. I had tapped into the bus with my iPhone using Apple Pay, but alas, in the five minutes since I’d boarded, my phone had run out of juice, so I had no means of proving that I had paid.
The inspector took my details and I didn’t think much more about it. Until December 28, that is, when, as I set out towards celebration number 103 of the Christmas season, I noticed a rather serious-looking letter addressed to me lying on the hall rug.
Upon opening it, I discovered I had been charged with failing to produce a valid ticket on a Transport for London service — and that I had 21 days to plead either “guilty or not guilty”. TfL said it had sent a letter ahead of this, but I never received it. This all felt a bit much for a time of year when the most stressful thing I normally face is working out if I can fit in a fifth mince pie, or whether it’s best to leave it at four.
I called the phone number given on the letter and explained what had happened. I was told to find a bank statement showing I had paid my fare and email it as soon as possible to TfL’s “investigations, appeals and prosecutions” team.
At this point, though, I came up against another snag — this time caused not by payment innovation, but by regulation innovation. As someone who takes pride in being in control of my personal finances, I had recently switched my bank account to make use of a £100 bonus offer. And that meant the current account that had been linked to my Apple Pay in October no longer existed, so getting a statement was going to be tricky.
My old bank told me they could get me a statement, but that they needed to send it to me in paper form, which would take 7-10 working days. And although I did give them my new address, they somehow sent the statement to the old one, delaying me by several more days.
Finally, on January 16, I got the bank statement showing the date in question. There it was, on October 8: £6.80 for “TfL travel” on October 6. I was relieved to see that I had hit the payment cap for travel in zones 1 and 2: given that the bus in question was in zone 2, I would surely be vindicated. I swiftly sent off a picture of my bank statement to TfL and requested that they withdraw the charge.
But a week later, I was told that the bank statement was not sufficient. “If you have registered your contactless card with TfL you are in a position to obtain your own detailed journey history,” I was told, while also advised to “urgently enter (my) plea”.
Well, the problem was that I hadn’t registered my card, had I? And nor had I ever been told that I needed to — I was only faintly aware that registering a bank card was even possible.
I called up the woman who had emailed me and, on getting no reply, sent her an email explaining that I hadn’t registered the card but that — as I had demonstrated — I had hit the travel cap for that day anyway so the bank statement should be sufficient proof.
I asked TfL why they accepted people using bank cards that weren’t registered — either in their physical form or as virtual cards on smartphones — given that it is impossible to prove they’ve paid for a journey. They told me: “There is no requirement for cards to be registered, the same as paying for any goods and services in a shop”. But it’s not the same, actually; in a shop, you are given a breakdown in the form of a receipt.
I didn’t hear back from the woman at TfL; though it later said it had sent a letter, I never received one. But a few days later, I received a letter telling me that my case had been heard in a magistrates' court, that I had been found guilty, and I owed £476.50.
By now I was feeling quite put out. I tried the number I’d originally called, but they couldn’t help, and I was given another number to call. That pointed me to an email address I was to write to, appealing against the decision. Having had no reply from that, I was given another email address, and still no reply. I sent five emails during these weeks — all of them unanswered, despite my labelling the messages “Urgent”.
On April 26, £476.50 was docked from my pay cheque, as instructed by the court. So at this point, I wasn’t just a criminal, but I was almost £500 out of pocket, and I was also rather embarrassed that my employer had been dragged into the whole saga.
That wasn’t all. The following week, I had an interview at the US Embassy in London for a media “I” visa for a five-week “bleisure” trip — California for a holiday and New York for work. I was due to set off on May 4.
I knew the question of whether I had any prosecutions would come up but didn’t feel my wrongful conviction as a £1.50 bus fare dodger could be too damning. And anyway, I had finally been given a court date for an appeal hearing in June, and had brought confirmation of this to the embassy.
But it turned out that it was damning enough. I was told in no uncertain terms by a most disagreeable official that there was no way I would be travelling to the US on May 4, and that I needed to get a police records certificate before they would even think about issuing me with a visa.
I finally got my passport back, and my US visa, almost two weeks after I was due to travel, having spent another £90 on the certificate. My flights were non-exchangeable and non-refundable. By this stage I was over £1,000 down and I couldn’t afford to rebook my flights. The whole trip was off.
The following month, I had my hearing, my conviction was quashed and I was told I was going to be refunded the £476.50. “I bet you’re very relieved,” the magistrate said. Well, yes, I thought. But that doesn’t quite cover it.
I always thought that criminals were meant to be the ones that exploited “innovation”. But it felt like innovation had exploited me, and turned me into a criminal.
I still use Apple Pay to tap in on buses and trains — I’m not going to seek revenge against the digital revolution just because it stung me. But I have now invested in a portable charger. I must stop forgetting to charge it.
The author is a writer for FT Alphaville.
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