US News: How my iPhone landed me with a £476 fine and made me a criminal - PressFrom - United Kingdom
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US News How my iPhone landed me with a £476 fine and made me a criminal

11:45  10 october  2019
11:45  10 october  2019 Source:   ft.com

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  How my iPhone landed me with a £476 fine and made me a criminal © Getty

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.

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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”.

  How my iPhone landed me with a £476 fine and made me a criminal © Getty 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.

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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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