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Your Money: Laser hassle

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Card problems: Kim Frendsen from Killeens, Co Cork, who received an unrequested debit card

Card problems: Kim Frendsen from Killeens, Co Cork, who received an unrequested debit card

Card problems: Kim Frendsen from Killeens, Co Cork, who received an unrequested debit card

NOT so long ago, Ireland was very much a nation wedded to cash and cheques, but today paperless banking is much closer to reality than ever before.

Debit cards have been around here for over 10 years, and today they are accepted by almost every major retailer in Ireland, with only a few exceptions.

Over the last few years, the use of debit cards has exploded to the point where it is estimated that in excess of 350 card transactions now take place every minute in Ireland, compared to about 100 in 2005.

This figure looks set to rise still further thanks to the growth in online shopping.

Up until relatively recently, the only debit card scheme in Ireland was Laser, which was established in 1996 by a consortium comprising AIB, Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank, National Irish Bank, Permanent TSB, First Active and EBS.

When it opened its first retail branches here in 2007, Halifax became the first bank in Ireland offer customers an alternative to Laser -- Visa Debit.

Now, Ulster Bank has decided to exit the Laser scheme in favour of Visa Debit.

But regardless of whether you have a Laser or a Visa Debit card, the charges (if any) for using it still depends on your bank.

Halifax, Postbank, Permanent TSB, Ulster Bank and National Irish Bank do not charge customers any transaction fees for using their debit cards.

National Irish Bank's basic current account is transaction free, but its 'Easy Plus' product charges a flat fee of €18.75 per quarter for all banking transactions, including a debit card.

AIB charges 20c for every debit card transaction, while Bank of Ireland charges either 28c or a flat €11.40 per quarter for up to 90 transactions, which includes those made using a debit card.

If you use your card for any sterling or other non-euro transactions (such as when on holiday overseas), you may be charged a transaction and/or a currency conversion fee, but exactly how much you pay again depends on your bank and whether you use the card for a transaction or a cash withdrawal. In most cases, it is cheaper to use the card for transactions than for cash withdrawals.

What really differentiates a Laser from a Visa Debit card is how many retailers -- both here and overseas -- accept it.

Laser is still very much the market leader in Ireland, and is accepted by more retailers here (approximately 70,000, according to the Irish Payment Services Organisation [IPSO], which runs the scheme) than Visa Debit.

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It is understood that the fees charged to retailers for Laser card transactions are lower than for other card schemes.

But until recently, one big issue for Laser card holders was that it was not possible to use their card overseas -- a serious drawback for holidaymakers -- because it is an Ireland-only scheme.

From about 2005, the banks here got round this problem by co-branding their Laser cards with the Maestro international card scheme, which is owned by MasterCard and is accepted in about nine million outlets worldwide.

Although Halifax did consider the Laser scheme in 2007, according to a spokeswoman, the bank chose Visa Debit instead partly because it is accepted in 28 million outlets worldwide, three times as many as for Maestro.

Ulster Bank, which also cites the greater international acceptance of the scheme as its main reason for changing over, has already started to transfer all its existing Laser debit card customers to Visa Debit.

Its parent company, the Royal Bank of Scotland, has also recently switched from Maestro to Visa Debit in the UK.

Ulster Bank's move is likely to be welcomed by those who shop online, as it will help remove the need to have a credit card.

There remains a strong perception that Laser cards cannot be used to buy items from international online sellers, and even some Irish ones.

Ryanair is probably the best-known Irish company that doesn't accept Laser for online booking. It does accept Visa Debit, but charges a €5 booking fee per person per flight, as they do for credit cards, but has just announced that it will now accept a prepaid MasterCard as a way to avoid this charge.

Una Dillon of the Irish Payment Service Organisation insists that most Irish online retailers accept Laser.

When it comes to international online sellers, Ms Dillon says that they can accept Maestro function on Laser cards as long as they are set up to accept MasterCard products, but whether or not they can process a customer's transaction depends on the company's card processor or its card issuer.

"Card issuers may choose to decline certain transactions," she said. "This is a matter for each card issuer."

In theory, national card schemes like Laser could be on the way out if an EU-wide project called SEPA (Single European Payments Area) achieves its aim to harmonise payment systems across Europe.

"The short-term solutions include putting Cirrus, Maestro, and other international symbols on Laser cards. But Ulster Bank may be taking the longer view."


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