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Thursday, 27 July 2017

Of Card Payments, Consumer Protection, SMEs and Merchant Aggregators

Consumer advocates have raised the issue of some uncertainty about which credit card transactions benefit from the statutory right to pursue the card issuer if a merchant makes a misrepresentation or breaches the contract for sale of an item (see the April article from MoneySavingExpert). Many do not realise that the uncertainty arises from arrangements that enable small businesses to accept card payments, overlooking important benefits to SMEs and consumers alike. If SMEs (which represent 99% of UK businesses) cannot accept card payments, consumers may find it less convenient to deal with them, threatening their livelihoods and over half the UK's new jobs, while also reducing consumer choice and competition for large retailers. The statutory right is also subject to exceptions that mean the transaction might not be covered anyway. Yet cardholders still have 'chargeback' rights under their card terms, which are more generous and involve less hassle than making a statutory claim.  So, my own view is that the benefit of enabling small traders to offer their customers the convenience of paying by card outweighs the potential lack of a statutory claim against the card issuer, because the cardholder has the greater comfort of being able to initiate a chargeback anyway. 

Statutory Rights

Consumer credit transactions that involve the borrower (e.g. a credit cardholder), the creditor (e.g. a credit card issuer) and a supplier (merchant) under the same agreement benefit from a provision of the Consumer Credit Act (CCA) that makes the creditor liable for any misrepresentation or breach of contract relating to the sale of the item (section 75). Various exclusions apply. For instance, it only covers items over a £100 up to £30,000 and it does not cover or must be more than Another provision covers transactions where the credit agreement did not directly involve the supplier but was specifically linked to the sale of a specific item (section 75A). Again, however, there are exceptions and it only applies to transactions for an amount exceeding £30,000 up to £60,260, so it is unlikely to be relevant to card transactions.

Chargeback Rights

Under rules governing the operation of the card schemes, such as MasterCard, card transactions can be reversed or 'charged back' in various cases including cardholder dispute within 180 days of the transaction. This right is wider than the statutory right under section 75 of the CCA because it applies to debit card transactions as well as credit card transactions, and the reasons for initiating a chargeback go well beyond the scope of the statutory right (see the list of reasons on page 54).

Merchant Aggregators

Card schemes operate by enabling issuers to issue payment cards that can be presented to participating merchants, who send the transaction data to an 'acquirer' who then obtains payment from the relevant card issuers via an 'interchange' process run by the card scheme operator. 

Typically, the merchant must have a direct contract with an acquirer, but that is expensive to set up and administer in the case of small merchants. 

So to give cardholders the convenience of being able to pay small merchants, the card schemes allow approved intermediaries (MasterCard calls them "Payment Facilitators", for example) to represent  small businesses more efficiently and cost effectively under a single contract with the acquirer, enabling those 'submerchants' to accept card payments where their annual transaction volume is less than $1m or local currency equivalent (increased from $100,000 a few years ago). WorldPay, the UK's largest card acquirer, explains its aggregator program here, for example; and MasterCard has a global list of approved Payment Facilitators by region.

In addition, department stores and e-commerce marketplaces may be treated by the card schemes as the merchant, where the obligation to pay the price of an item offered by a third party seller is satisfied by paying the store or marketplace operator rather than the seller directly. Where problems arise in that context, even though section 75 claims would not be possible, the cardholder typically has the right to either use the marketplace's own dispute resolution and compensation process or, in any event, to initiate a chargeback (large third party sellers will also have their own returns and complaints resolution and compensation process). Such 'master merchant' relationships are also important channels for small businesses to gain access to larger markets, again improving convenience, consumer choice and competition.

The point in all these cases is to weigh the benefits to consumers of convenience, increased choice and competition - as well as the benefits to SMEs who are able to access a wider market, grow and create more new jobs - against the loss of the relatively narrow rights under section 75 compared to chargeback rights and other remedies.