The financial news you need to know with Sarah Pennells – March 29 2017

Sarah Pennells is a personal finance journalist and the face behind SavvyWoman.co.uk. We think she does a great job at explaining financial subjects in a very clear and accessible manner. You can find her column below where she writes about the latest financial news, and helps you get more from your money.

Banking software scam

If you register to bank online, depending on who you bank with, you may be offered free anti-virus software to download to protect your computer. The idea is – understandably – that it cuts the risks of fraudsters accessing your account online.

But now it’s emerged that fraudsters are emailing people, pretending to be from major high street banks, and sending them a link to download what appears to be legitimate ‘Rapport’ software. Except it’s not the real thing at all. If you click on the link and download it, you’ll actually install malware designed to harvest your financial details.

It’s pretty clever as well in that, according to anti-virus software company Symantec, it will hide itself in your PC’s system, making it very hard to remove. If you’ve registered to bank online, always check emails you receive that look like they’re from your bank.

SAVVY TIP: If in doubt, ring the bank and check it’s a genuine email. You might feel a bit silly or that you’re making a fuss, but it’s better than being defrauded.

Cheques you can clear in a day?

Three years ago the government unveiled plans to make banks clear cheques in one working day, by letting us scan and send pictures, rather than paying in the physical piece of paper.

Clearing is the process by which the payment is taken from one account (the person or business who wrote the cheque) and paid into another (the person whose name is on the cheque).

SAVVY TIP: At the moment it can take up to six working days for a cheque to clear, so you know it hasn’t been issued fraudulently and that there’s enough money in the person’s account to pay you.

The new scheme means that if you pay a cheque in one day, you’ll be able to spend it the next working day. The scheme was due to be up and running already but it’s been delayed. Some banks will introduce it from October and all banks and building societies will have to do so from the second half of next year.

Price comparison site (uSwitch)

Price comparison sites can be a great way of saving money when you switch, but they’re not always as transparent as they could be. If you shop around for a new energy supplier on a price comparison site that’s signed up to the confidence code from the regulator, Ofgem, they shouldn’t only show you deals from suppliers they get a commission from.

That was something that Ofgem clamped down on two years ago. But it appears that at least one price comparison site has been showing only deals it gets commission on as its ‘default’ setting.

SAVVY TIP: Watch out! If you’re searching for something like a new savings account, a number of price comparison sites will only show you a selection of deals unless you tick a box saying you want to access all the deals on the market. This isn’t against the rules.

End of tax year on April 5th

The end of the tax year is just a few days away, and that’s when you have to use certain allowances by – such as your ISA (individual savings account) allowance. In the current tax year you can pay up to £15,240 into a cash ISA, a stocks and shares ISA or a mixture of the two.

From April 6th that figure rises to £20,000. You can put up to £4,000 of that allowance into the new lifetime ISA, if you’re eligible for one. You have to be aged between 18 and 40 to take one out and you can only use it to buy your first home or for retirement.

I’m all for using allowances, but don’t be rushed into a stocks and shares ISA or anything that locks your money away, just to beat the deadline. Sometimes the worst decisions are made in a hurry!

SAVVY TIP: If you qualify for the lifetime ISA (LISA), you’ll have the benefit of £1,000 from the government for every £4,000 a year you pay in – and any interest or profit is tax free.

Tax-free childcare from April

The government’s new tax-free childcare allowance, worth up to £2,000, will be phased in from April 28th. This is how it works:

  • Parents will be able to claim up to £2,000 per child by way of a tax break on the cost of childcare.
  • Parents of two years olds will be able to sign up to the scheme from April 28th. Over the course of 2017, the scheme will be rolled out so that by the end of the year, parents with children up to the age of 12 (or up to 17 if they’re disabled), will be able to claim.
  • The tax break will be available to parents where both work (or one if it’s a single parent family) at least 16 hours a week. You’ve got to expect to earn at least £120 a week to qualify.
  • The child you’re claiming the childcare tax break for has to live with you.
  • It’s not available to parents who earn more than £100,000 each.
  • Both self employed and employed parents will be able to claim the tax break.
  • You can’t use it to pay for informal childcare, such as from a neighbour or your grandparents.
  • There’s more information on a new government website called childcarechoices.gov.uk.

SAVVY TIP: If you are employed and your employer offers childcare vouchers, you will be able to carry on using these while you’re with the same employer. But from April 2018, employer-based childcare vouchers will not be open for new parents to register.

Automatic compensation for poor phone and broadband service

Ever switch broadband provider and been stuck without broadband for days – or even weeks? Or perhaps your existing provider has arranged a repair and the engineer has vanished without a trace? Well, in the future, phone and broadband providers will have to pay compensation automatically, under plans published by the regulator, Ofcom.

It’s proposing that companies will have to pay £10 a day if your phone or broadband stops working (after 48 hours, if it’s a weekday), £30 if an engineer doesn’t show up or if your appointment is cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice and £6 a day for every day that your new broadband service is delayed.

Insurance renewals

Been with the same insurer for a few years? Well, from April 1st, you’ll be told how much your insurance cost last year when you’re sent a renewal reminder. The rules are designed to get more people to shop around and save money.

Insurers often offer a discount to new customers for the first year or two, and then increase prices. It means some loyal customers end up paying much more for the same policy.

If you’ve been with the same insurance company for four years, the insurer will also have to tell you that you may be able to get a better deal if you shop around.

So here are my tips to help you get the best deal if you’re shopping around:

  • Have your policy paperwork with you when you shop around. You can normally access the policy wording on your insurer’s website if you don’t have the information to hand.
  • Watch out for things like excess levels when you’re using a price comparison site. You’re normally asked to choose the level of excess (the first part of any claim you have to pay), but some deals add on a compulsory excess as well.
  • Check out reviews about the insurer – especially if it’s one you’re not familiar with. There’s no point saving a few pounds if making a claim is a complete nightmare!
  • Compare deals from a price comparison site with those from a broker. Price comparison sites normally have more deals than you can access through a broker, but brokers work for you, not the insurer. That means you can complain if you’ve been sold a policy that isn’t right for you (you can’t do this if you pick it yourself via a comparison site) and they can be a better bet if your situation is a bit unusual, such as you live in a very old property or you’re a young driver.

New £1 coin is here

The new 12-sided £1 coin went into circulation on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get your hands on it straight away. Only a handful of banks in major cities and towns had new £1 coins on day one, but more will get them in coming days and weeks.

Supermarket chain Tesco has unlocked thousands of its trollies because they couldn’t take old and new coins, but many organisations say they’ve adapted their vending machines, parking machines and trollies in time.

SAVVY TIP: Old £1 coins will be legal tender until October 15th. After that, you’ll be able to take them to your bank or a Post Office, but there may be a limit on how many coins you can exchange. A number of charities are asking people to donate their old £1 coins.