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Surcharges to top up bills are targeting poor

People on low incomes are bearing the brunt of surcharges imposed on gas and electric pay-as-you-go bill payments, an advice agency has warned.

Retailers should stop targeting hard-pressed consumers with surcharges and instead seek a better deal from the utility companies, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) said.

"It appears that neither the regulator nor consumer agencies have any power to stop retailers from imposing the surcharges," said MABS spokesman Michael Culloty.

"If shopkeepers have a beef about being paid they should address it with the utility companies, not with the poor consumers.

"The utility companies are as anxious to get rid of these surcharges as we are. They don't think people on low incomes should have to pay this extra cost."

MABS has publicised a growing practice involving some retailers imposing a surcharge of 20 to 50 cents on people making top-up payments on their gas and electric bills.

More than 150,000 households top-up energy cards several times a month under a government-backed initiative to reduce the rate of disconnections for non-payment of bills.

A percentage of each top-up goes to reducing existing arrears to help cash-strapped families control their debts.

"Consumers paying bills are now hit three ways - for usage, arrears and now the shopkeepers," said Mr Culloty.

"Often people might top-up with a fiver yet they could pay 50c extra to the shopkeeper. That's a lot for people who are not well off."

PayPoint, one of the companies providing pay-as-you-go services at shops, claimed surcharges contravene the contracts the retailers signed. One shop has already been dropped from the scheme.

RGDATA, the representative association for the owners of independent shops, called on the ESB and Bord Gais and local authorities to properly reimburse retailers for providing pay-as-you-go services in local shops.