On Your Side: The facts on school fees, air miles and more

The National's consumer advocate answers questions about about charging to secure a school place, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank's Etihad miles programme and the consequences of bouncing cheques with HSBC.

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My daughter goes to Regent School in Dubai and we recently received a letter saying that to secure a place in the next school year, we would need to pay not only a re-enrolment fee of Dh500, but also an "optional" fee of Dh4,000, which, by the tone of the letter, did not sound very optional. Indeed, the form to be returned assumed that the full amount would be paid. I'd like to know if the school can insist that we pay this larger amount. Several parents have been told that if they don't, they will not be guaranteed a place for next year. CP, Dubai

In a press announcement a couple of years ago, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the government authority that oversees education in Dubai, stated that schools may charge a maximum of Dh500 to reserve a place for the next academic year. This has not changed. In this case, it appears that staff have been told to inform parents that the additional amount must be paid, but this is not enforceable and parents do not need to pay this amount now, even if it is offset against future fees. I have been told that other schools demand an even higher amount, but this is not permitted by the KHDA.

In December 2010, my husband and I decided to take advantage of the Etihad credit-card offer through Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB), which earns you Etihad Guest miles. The fee for the ADCB Etihad Elite card was Dh1,000 annually and we received a joining bonus of 25,000 Etihad Guest miles. The fee was deducted in January 2011 and we promptly received our bonus Guest miles. In July 2011, we decided to upgrade our cards to the Etihad Infinite card. The fee for this was Dh2,500 annually and the bonus offered was 50,000 Etihad Guest miles. After the required 60 days, my husband checked our Etihad Guest miles account only to find that the bonus miles hadn't been added. He phoned ADCB in November 2011 and raised a complaint regarding the matter. A few days later, he received a call back explaining that 5,000 Guest miles had been added to our account. At no stage were we told that we would not receive the bonus 50,000 Etihad Guest miles. My husband assumed that the 5,000 miles were in addition to the 50,000 bonus miles. After another period of waiting, my husband again phoned to ask about the extra miles. He was told that an ADCB internal policy prohibited customers who upgrade their cards to receive any further Guest miles. Furthermore, no refund would be offered for the original card fee. All we want is either the pro-rated refund of the initial fee or the Infinite Etihad Guest miles. FP, Abu Dhabi

Management at ADCB contacted FP and explained that the free offer of a large amount of air miles can be taken up only once and is not available in full if anyone upgrades with the bank. What FP has been offered is a downgrade to the Platinum card because there is no additional benefit they want from the Infinite card. In return, ADCB will refund the pro-rated annual charge. Although FP would have liked more, she agrees that this is fair and understands that it is an introductory offer. ADCB is aware that such offers need to have absolute clarity and that it may need to make it clear that it is really a one-off offer for all credit-card customers.

I recently found out that all facilities, such as loans and new accounts, were blocked on my HSBC accounts by the Central Bank under a regulation I was not aware of - and only knew by chance when requesting one from my bank. The reason is that four cheques bounced, although they were all covered soon after. The cheques were made out to my brother as part of an internal financial monthly arrangement. Cheques were either not deposited on time or sometimes two at the same time. We both believed this to be an internal matter and were not aware of any regulations or measures in that case. How can I file a complaint or petition against the decision by the Central Bank? HSBC said it can't help. TD, Dubai

TD is not disputing the charges levied by HSBC and is aware that he and his brother made something of a mess of this, but he has been a customer of HSBC for some 15 years. Because the total in question was only about Dh5,000, he was surprised that such restrictions were applied. An HSBC spokesperson said: "Clause 17.16 in our Terms and Conditions states, 'If you write cheques on accounts which have no or insufficient funds to cover them when presented, then in accordance with applicable banking regulation in the country (and in addition to your liabilities under the applicable penal laws in force from time to time in the country), we may withdraw your cheque facility, request the return of your unused cheques, impose progressive fines upon receipt of further returned cheques, and/or close your account'. As per our prevailing policy, any customer who has four or more returned cheques cannot avail of further credit facilities with the bank. We are also obliged by applicable banking regulation to forward the case to the Central Bank." HSBC has acted according to its policy and that of the Central Bank. A customer who has been declined can approach the bank again and ask it to reconsider, but the lesson here is to realise that bouncing a cheque is not a private matter and can affect your credit history and banking facilities.

Keren Bobker is an independent financial adviser with Holborn Assets in Dubai. Contact her at keren@holbornassets.com or onyourside@thenational.ae