Student Liberty Sprackling paid the London Congestion Charge online before driving into the capital. The £11.50 fee, levied during peak hours on weekdays, was debited from her account. Eight days later, it was mysteriously refunded.
Sprackling contacted Transport for London (TfL), the government body responsible for the charge, and was told she would have to wait until she had received a penalty charge notice (PCN) for non-payment and then contest it.
She did so and, despite sending confirmation of the transaction provided by her bank, her challenge was turned down and she was ordered to pay an £80 fine, rising to the full £160 if not settled within 14 days.
On the same day she made the payment, the Observer reported the case of another reader, Mahdi Koutizadeh, who also transferred the £11.50 online before driving into the congestion zone. The transaction showed as pending on his account for five days, then vanished. He, too, was told that he must await a PCN then challenge it. He sent a screenshot of the pending sum but TfL declared that he had not provided “sufficient evidence” of payment and fined him.
Both drivers appear to have fallen victim to a glitch with TfL’s payment system which failed to collect the sums after they had been authorised by the banks. Worryingly, the Observer has heard from five other readers who have suffered an identical experience.
Complaints website Resolver reports a surge in similar cases. Not only does TfL refuse to acknowledge a problem, it continues to ignore evidence from motorists showing that they have paid up. Moreover, those who heed its suggestion to appeal to London Tribunals, the independent adjudicator, face a £160 fine if they lose, since the right to pay 50% only applies within 14 days of receipt.
Ethan Gates was warned that his fine would rise to £240 if he failed to pay within 28 days. Like Sprackling and Koutizadeh, he had paid the charge on the day he drove into the zone and after showing as pending for 10 days the sum was refunded to his account.
A letter from his bank confirming the transaction, and the fact that TfL had failed to claim it, was ignored. “I phoned to inquire what further information I should ask for my bank to provide, and the lady I spoke with was incredibly rude. I’m feeling trapped and forced into paying £80 I genuinely don’t believe I should have to pay,” he says. “I’m really stuck and don’t know what I should do.”
Koutizadeh’s fine was cancelled after the Observer intervened. Only then did TfL admit that it was clear he had attempted to pay. It also agreed to cancel Sprackling’s PCN when we alerted it to the case.
Paul Cowperthwaite, general manager of Road User Charging at TfL, says: “We’re sorry we didn’t immediately cancel the penalty charge notice when evidence of an attempt to pay was provided. We have cancelled the notice and will review how we handle these rare issues. We’ve contacted Ms Sprackling to let her know.”
In fact, no one did contact her and the fine was only cancelled a month later after further media pressure.
Motorists who query a missing or failed payment with TfL find themselves entering a realm of Orwellian bureaucracy. The standard response is that nothing can be done until a PCN has been issued, at which point they should use the in-house appeals process to set the record straight.
When their challenge is dismissed they are told their only recourse is London Tribunals. Dismissal of these appeals results in increased revenue for TfL which, instead of an £11.50 fee, benefits from a penalty of up to £240.
TfL insists that only a “very small” number of drivers have been affected by the issue. “We’re sorry that incorrect penalty charge notices were not immediately cancelled after evidence of an attempt to pay was provided,” Cowperthwaite adds. “Clearly our response hasn’t been right, so we’re putting in measures to avoid this happening again.” The agency says it is investigating each case we raised to ensure lessons are learned.
The operation of London’s congestion and low emission zone charges was outsourced to Capita in 2015. It had to pay TfL more than £20m in compensation after botching an IT upgrade the following year and TfL is reportedly considering taking over the administration itself when the contract ends in 2021.
Capita denies that there is a problem with its technology. It says: “Working with TfL, we have tested the payments process and there is currently no indication this extremely rare issue has been caused by a fault in Capita’s platform. We continue to work closely with TfL to ensure payments are processed smoothly.”
However, Martyn James of Resolver says that customer feedback suggests there is a problem and that they are seeing a significant increase in complaints.
When paying the charge ensure you receive confirmation and take screenshots of your online bank balance so you have evidence of the transaction.
And scammers can get you, too
Drivers entering chargeable congestion zones are being scammed by websites masquerading as official payment portals. The sites, which come up first on some online searches, charge covert fees which can double the price of the official charge and do not pass the payment on to the relevant authority, leaving drivers with a penalty charge.
Sarah Weston inadvertently used paylondoncharge.co.uk when she entered London’s ultra-low emissions zone. An emailed receipt confirmed the transaction, but two weeks later she received a £160 penalty charge from TfL, £80 if paid within 14 days. Weston sent TfL the receipt but was told the money had never been received. Moreover, the website charged £19.99 instead of the £12.50 required by TfL. The extra £7.49 is a service fee only mentioned in the small print at the bottom of the home page, together with the fact the site is not affiliated to TfL.
It failed to respond to requests for a comment and its phone number does not work. But following media contact it refunded the cost of the fine.
A similar site, Paydartcharge.co.uk, charges £6 for the Dartford Crossing – the official charge is £2.50. Paydartcharge did not respond to queries.
Signs at the crossing, administered by Highways England, instruct motorists to search online for how to pay, leaving the uninitiated vulnerable to impostors.
Some fake websites offer 24-hour support on a premium rate number which connects callers to TfL’s own call centre while racking up charges. TfL didn’t respond for a request for a comment but its website states it is “continually working to try to remedy the situation”.