Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 21 Nov 2019
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman found fault by Transport for London on Mr D’s complaint of it failing to ensure congestion charges for another vehicle were not wrongly charged to him. It also failed to promptly take measures to prevent this happening again. It wrongly charged him on 53 occasions, 7 of which were after he alerted it to the problem, and 2 of which were after it had responded to his concerns. The agreed action remedies the avoidable injustice caused.
- Mr D complains Transport for London (TFL) failed to:
- Ensure congestion charges for another car were not taken from his Auto Pay account; and
- Take measures to prevent this from happening again.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered all the information Mr D sent and the response from TFL to my enquiries, a copy of which I sent him. I sent a copy of my draft decision to Mr D and TFL. I considered their responses.
What I found
- TFL has an Auto Pay system which bills a driver automatically for the number of charging days a vehicle travels within the congestion charge zone (the zone). The congestion charge is a daily charge for driving a vehicle within the zone between 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday. The Auto Pay system records the number of charging days a vehicle travels within the zone each month. It automatically takes payment from a registered user’s debit or credit card, or direct debit each month.
- Mr D registered for an Auto Pay account. He complained to TFL because the system took money from his account for journeys into the zone he had not made. TFL told him the problem was his car registration number was similar to another car driving into the zone. TFL wrongly charged the other car’s journeys to Mr D’s account.
- When alerted to the problem, TFL sent him refunds by cheques and gave him an apology. Mr D is unhappy with this as he had to make time to pay the cheques into his bank account. He notes payment by cheque conflicts with information on TFLs website about disputes. This states if TFL accepts the dispute, it will credit the Auto Pay service within 10 working days.
- TFL confirmed Mr D contacted it to question several charges on his statements. When checking the images taken of the vehicle, it became clear TFL wrongly charged Mr D for this other vehicle’s journeys. It explained its Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras capture images of vehicles travelling within the zone. Although not common, where a registration plate has significant similarities to another, or there is a feature on it such as a bolt or mark that changes the appearance of a character, the system can misread it. While it said it has measures in place to ensure registrations are correctly interpreted before applying a charge, sometimes a misread is not identified.
- TFL explained its manual process for preventing incorrect charges once an incorrect charge is identified. A customer’s registration number is added to its ‘manual assurance’ list. All images captured of either cars’ registration number are then manually checked and validated before any charge is applied to the account.
- Although TFL told Mr D when he complained that it had carried out a ‘detailed investigation’, it could not provide evidence of it. The complaint officer had liaised with the service provider to establish why the errors happened and what was done to prevent them happening again. The officer was told the registration was not properly addressed to the manual assurance list.
- TFL confirmed refunds of wrong charges are made through Auto Pay credits within 10 working days. Credit balances, once pending charges are deducted, are sent by way of a cheque. It cannot refund credits direct to a customer’s bank which is what Mr D wanted.
- Over a 6-month period this year, TFL stated there were fewer than 10 complaints about wrong charges that went through its complaint’s procedure. It noted over a 3-month period, it applied 2 million congestion charges.
- I found fault on this complaint. In reaching this conclusion, I took account of the following:
- TFL’s records show between September 2018 and April 2019, it deducted £10.50 from his account on 53 occasions with a further single payment of £12.50. This amounted to £558.50 over an 8-month period.
- Mr D alerted TFL to the problem on 21 January 2019. He explained this had happened over the previous 4 months and resulted in his credit card provider blocking his card because of all the payments going out of it. He also explained he had called several times, was told the manual checks would help, and received cheques by way of refunds. There were 7 further charges wrongly applied to his account after his email.
- TFL responded the following month saying it had made ‘a few administrative errors’. The email explained the officer had liaised with the relevant departments and was in the process of removing a few more additional charges from his account. TFL offered him £50 as a gesture of goodwill. There were only 2 additional charges wrongly made to his account after this email. While TFL’s manual checks appeared to have prevented wrongful payments on the previous scale, 2 payments were still wrongly charged to his account.
- Mr D’s email to TFL in January 2019 referred to calls he had to make about charges. TFL did not provide evidence of these contacts with Mr D in response to my enquiries. This makes it difficult to assess the number of times he had to contact TFL, the number of refunds he received by way of cheques, and whether he was promised any action to prevent the problem recurring, for example.
- I considered our guidance on remedies and the payment TFL previously paid Mr D as a gesture of goodwill.
- TFL will, within 4 weeks of the final decision on this complaint, carry out the following action:
- Make a payment to Mr D of £150 for the avoidable distress the fault caused him;
- Send him a written apology for: the failure to prevent the wrongful charging of payments to his account on 53 occasions, 7 of which took place after he alerted TFL, and 2 of which occurred after TFL provided a response to his reports; and, for failing to send evidence of telephone contact with Mr D about his problems; and
- It will take steps to remind staff of the need to make and retain telephone contact records so it has evidence of contact which it can provide in support of its response to enquiries in the future.
- The Ombudsman found fault causing injustice on Mr D’s complaint against Transport for London.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman