Agents accused of levying foreign exchange ‘stealth charges’

Agents accused of levying foreign exchange ‘stealth charges’

More than £1 billion is unknowingly being spent on secret fees and charges by travellers when exchanging foreign currency, a new study claims.

And travel agents stand accused of offering some of the poorest retail rates available.

As much as £1.15 billion is added to foreign exchange rates in the form of hidden fees, commissions, transaction charges and mark-ups before it reaches the pockets of British holidaymakers, according to a joint study by forex provider Travel Money Club and the University of Wolverhampton.

The firm claims that foreign exchange rates are packed with “stealth charges”, making it difficult for travellers to understand which providers offer the best value.

A total of £66.3 billion is spent on foreign currency during visits abroad each year; 75% of this is exchanged in UK banks, bureaux de change, travel agents, supermarkets and Post Offices before departure, according to the Office for National Statistics.

But hidden margins, charges and commissions mean that travellers spent £40 billion buying the 20 most popular currencies rather than the £38.85 billion it would have cost with Travel Money Club.

People face paying as much as £200 extra when exchanging £2,500, with rates varying on different currencies from the same provider by as much as 6.25%.

Travel Money Club is lobbying for greater transparency in the pricing of retail foreign exchange to allow those travelling abroad to make a more informed choice about where to buy their travel money and how to benefit from the best rates.

There is no regulation on retail currency providers and the rates they offer, unlike the home energy market which recently introduced guidance for providers and the rates they charge.

The lack of transparency means that many currency retailers hide fees and commissions in their rates rather than being open about operating charges, the study found.

A total of 90% of travellers admit to getting their currency from a regular source, with less consideration for getting the best deal. As many as 85% believe there is minimal difference in fees and charges between providers.

This lack of awareness in charges resulted in 98% of travellers considering convenience among the most important factors when buying foreign currency.

Travellers who do shop around spent an average of just 12 minutes comparing conversion rates before purchasing.

Dr Asia Alder, senior lecturer in leisure industries at the University of Wolverhampton said: “The findings demonstrate some significant price variances in the rates offered by retail currency providers, with retailers making different rates of profit on different types of currency.

“Adding greater transparency to this industry would help consumers make a more informed choice about where to buy their travel money and the best rate for individual currencies, rather than masking the price of the currency as the market rate.”

Travel Money Club founder Don Clark said: “The truth is that foreign exchange is still a wild west when it comes to retail regulation, with no restrictions on what can be charged to consumers and how much can be added in the form of hidden fees and charges.

“This results in hugely different prices between providers, and even across branches of the same company.

“Leads and lags are also commonplace, with delays in publishing better rates, and the accelerating of poorer rates ahead of market drops, inflating profits for retail currency exchanges – a similar pricing strategy to the one used by petrol stations when oil prices fluctuate.”

He added: “We want to lead the way in campaigning for fairness and transparent pricing, so consumers properly understand their options and can make an informed choice.

“We look forward to the day when all businesses, whether commercial or retail sellers in the foreign exchange sector, follow suit.

“Following Ofgem’s introduction of regulatory guidance for home energy providers, we encourage the retail travel money and exchange sector to follow suit, bringing transparency to British customers.

“We would eventually like to see all retail foreign exchange providers quoting the market rate and disclosing their fees and commissions separately, so the customer has full clarity in what they’re paying and where their money is actually going.

“This would also eradicate the exploitation of fluctuating exchange rates and see the ordinary person in the street covered in the same way as commercial currency providers.

The latest extension of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive incorporated commercial currency, stocks, bonds and commodities, but we need another extension to specifically address retail foreign exchange trading so Brits get the best deal possible ahead of their holiday.

“Hopefully this research will help start the discussion of how we achieve a fairer marketplace.”

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