All is not well behind the sofa – PayPal freeze charity book account

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All Steve Berry wanted to do was to raise a few quid for the Alzheimer’s Society in memory of his dead mother. The obvious solution was to use his considerable contacts with the world of Doctor Who fandom in Britain – he’s written a lot for DW Magazine, so he decided to collect together celebrity memories of the much-loved TV show, get someone to illustrate it, and sell it for the charity. For the last four years, he’s put a lot of time and effort into the project and now he’s ready to get the book printed and distributed.

He looked at various crowdfunding options and set up a website. The money began to flow in, DW fans (regardless of their loony reputation in some quarters) being a basically generous and nostalgic bunch. Steve looked forward to being able to cover his printing bills and get the book out. The figures were getting bigger – his first print run of 300 sold out and he had to order more.

Then disaster struck. He’d used PayPal to process the payments on his site and suddenly, without a word of warning or explanation, they froze his account. They demanded invoices, signed as paid, before they’d release the money he needed to pay said invoices. It was Catch-22. Numerous phone calls and e-mails went unanswered. It wasn’t until people like Neil Gaiman began to make a fuss that PayPal showed any willingness to negotiate. Meanwhile, of course, all the money people have handed over to Steve in good faith is sitting there earning them interest. And it’s not the first time something like this has happened. There have been other accounts of PayPal screwing over small charities, or even demanding that valuable antiques be destroyed simply because a legitimate query had been raised by a proposed buyer about their authenticity.

PayPal’s behaviour may not be unreasonable in theory. They are at the sharp end of every Internet scam going and it’s understandable that sudden, untypical activity on what appears to be a personal account should ring a few warning bells. It may well be that, with the benefit of hindsight, Steve would have organised things differently (Ironically, a simple Donate to Me button would probably have caused fewer problems).  Belatedly, PayPal appears to have woken up to the public relations disaster they’ve blundered into in the UK and are, finally, willing to negotiate with Steve.  As he tweeted yesterday,

Is the damage done to @PayPalUK‘s reputation worth the 3.4% (+20p) they have already taken from each payment made for a copy of the book?

Meanwhile, such is PayPal’s commitment to a fair and negotiated solution that Steve has had to commit to fund his entire first print run from his own savings.

I won’t bore you with the details here, but it’s obvious that PayPal hasn’t the foggiest clue how to deal with this kind of grass-roots initiative – they are behaving as if everyone has armies of lawyers at their command. It’s all the more ironic in a week where Invisible Children are getting flak for spending too much of their money on fundraising and not enough on direct aid. Do we really want a world where huge corporations dominate the Internet with a completely monolithic and inflexible policy?

Steve really has tried to do everything right. In this, he resembles a deaf lady from Berkhampstead, Jill Hipson, who recently tried to buy a new car:

Mrs Hipson has banked with Barclays for 30 years, and the bank is well aware of her disability. She visited a branch a few days before buying a car at her local garage to warn the bank that she was going to make a big transaction. She was reassured that she would not face any problems. However, when she came to pay for the car the bank called the garage owner to say that Mrs Hipson must authorise the transaction over the phone. As she was unable to do so, the garage owner was forced to drive Mrs Hipson to the nearest Barclays branch to authorise it in person.

She says: ‘I was with my husband at the time of the purchase, but Barclays refused to let him speak to them to confirm that I was indeed deaf and was unable to authorise the transaction over the phone. He was told the Data Protection Act prevented him speaking on my behalf. The Honda salesman showed more loyalty as a customer of five minutes, than Barclays whom I have banked with for many years.’

It really does beggar belief that, in this age of technology, a disabled customer of longstanding should be humiliated in this way. She was expected to use a phone – a physical impossibility for her. And, like Steve’s, her case is not an isolated one. The campaigning group Action on Hearing Loss recently told The Times:
‘Some banks are failing people, which can leave them frustrated and isolated, and can lead to them feeling financially excluded. We strongly believe that people with a hearing loss should have equal access to their banking services. We would expect induction loop systems in branches to be working and checked on a regular basis, and textphones are responded to when customers use telephone banking.’
Barclays’ treatment of Mrs Hipson is not just unacceptable. It’s arguably illegal:

Chris Fry, a managing partner of Unity Law, a practice specialising in disability discrimination, said: ‘Banks are bound by the provisions of section 29 of the Equality Act. Where a bank’s arrangements, including telephone verification of identity, or the giving of instructions, create a substantial disadvantage for disabled customers, it triggers a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments. Banks must do enough to avoid the disadvantage altogether or to find another way to provide the service.’

He added: ‘The policy behind the Act is not a minimalist one of grudgingly make some provision, but to provide a service as close as possible to that enjoyed by non-disabled customers.’

A typical case for ‘injury to feelings’ under the Equality Act, where someone feels they were treated unfavourably compared to an able bodied customer because of their disability, could result in compensation of as much as £6,000 not counting legal costs. Courts can also order banks to change their practices, at significant cost.

And it’s not just deaf people:

In the landmark case of Allen vs The Royal Bank of Scotland, in 2009, RBS was forced to change the layout of its branch in Sheffield after a customer with Duchenne muscular dystrophy complained that that the branch was inaccessible to wheelchair users. RBS was found to have breached the Disability Act for arguing that Mr Allen should ‘use internet banking instead’. The judge argued that this was not the same service and that the bank must carry out alterations to the building.

It’s true that the world is full of fraudsters. But it’s also full of decent people like Steve (and the volunteers and celebs who freely gave their time to his project). You really would think that after all that’s happened, including the use of vast sums of public money to bail some of them out in recent years, financial institutions would have a bit more sensitivity to those who are trying to make life better for the disabled and sick, and indeed those among their customer base who are disabled and sick themselves.

IT’S NOT YOUR  MONEY, BITCHES. Just remember that, okay?
13/03/2012 16.54 – Steve and PayPal have just issued a joint press statement saying that an amicable arrangement has been reached. PayPal expressed regret at their handling of the situation.
Meanwhile, if you want to order Steve’s book, you can get it here.

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