Gas stations shouldn't hold customers hostage

Gas stations are putting the squeeze on consumers who use their debit cards to make purchases – and doing it without their knowledge. It shouldn't be allowed.

Some gas stations are concerned about collecting on automated debit-card transactions so they've taken to freezing large amounts of money in the consumers' bank accounts – amounts far exceeding the actual cost of the gas – to ensure they get their money. Trouble is, they're not telling customers about the practice, the freezes are sometimes triple the amount of the cash purchases and the amounts can be frozen or debited from accounts for several hours, possibly even days.

For customers, that ties up money customers might need to pay other bills. It can cause embarrassment if the customer makes a purchase and the card is declined for insufficient funds. And it could mean overdraft charges if the bank allows a purchase while the freeze is effectively creating insufficient funds.

In a time when many people are finding it difficult to make ends meet, they may know to the dollar what's in their bank accounts and how they'll use the money. These freezes put them in a precarious position.

It's no surprise that the consumer protection division of the N.C. Attorney General's Office has received several complaints about the practice – more complaints than in previous years. Officials say “as gas prices rise, gas stations tend to do this more.”

The stations fear banks won't cover increasingly large gas purchases if the money ends up not being in a consumer's checking account, said one financial services analyst. There's a time lag between pumping and paying so there's a lot of money at risk, observers say.

If gas stations use this freezing practice, they should at least alert customers about the policy before they pump. Stations already post notices on pumps about a variety of things. This should be included.

And if stations are that fearful, they could go to cash only or cash and credit cards. So far, most gas stations aren't. They don't put such excessive holds on bank accounts. That's good.

As for the others, they should start thinking about their customers a little bit more. If not, customers should vote with their feet – or rather their vehicles – and find a gas station that does.