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UK freelance journalist and author Sean McManus

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Time to check the Oyster source code...

29 January 2008

So, they've built this massive infrastructure for electronic payments on the tube. When you think of the scale of the thing, it's amazing. It works at every station on the tube network and you can charge up cards at stations or online. You can even charge up your cards in newsagents. The system debits your journey price from the card balance, and shows you how much credit is left when you leave the station.

I've just registered for automatic top-up. That means that when my balance gets below £5, they'll charge my credit card £20 and credit it to my Oyster card. Clearly, I need to have a lot of trust in them to grant them this authority. Firstly, that they're counting the cost correctly, and secondly that they won't mischarge or overcharge me.

So, what's my first experience with autocharging? Receiving the following email (I've made no edits to this):
You have successfully uploaded Auto top-up from <PickupStationName> station on your Oyster card, number <OysterCardNumber> and topped up your pay as you go. Auto top-up is now active on your card.<br><br>Whenever you travel on the Tube, DLR, Tram or Bus GBP<AutoloadTopupAmount> will automatically be added to your Oyster card at any station, using your credit or debit card ending in <HashedCCNumber>, when you enter a station and your pay as you go balance is below GBP5.00. You can change your Auto top-up arrangements at www.tfl.gov.uk/oyster.
This tells me that nobody has ever tested this system end-to-end, otherwise they would spot that the email merge isn't working. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

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Interesting, not so much in that there's a bug, but in the trust issue. Is there anything in the terms and conditions to protect you?

I'm drawing a comparison with the Direct Debit Guarantee. The Direct Debit mechanism makes it very easy for pretty much anyone to start taking money from your account -- but the Guarantee means that if this happens, you're not too inconvenienced during the dispute.
I can't see anything in the t&c to protect me if they make a mistake. There's no mention of dispute resolution as far as I can see to cover the event that they claim I took a journey which I claim I didn't.

The direct debit guarantee is powerful from a marketing point of view and is usually made very clear on sign-up forms, so I'm guessing TFL haven't put anything similar in place. If they had, it would be a headline along the lines of 'risk-free guarantee', particularly when they're trying to persuade people to try a new technology and payment mechanism.
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