36

TL/DR Bill payee can't find my bank transfer and threatens debt recovery action. What to do?

A family member is studying at a major UK university. Quarterly or so, the university raises tuition bills. Every time, bills are paid full and on time by bank transfer, in line with the University's payment guidelines, yet many times the university claims otherwise and chases us for payments, only to relent eventually that payment was fine in the first place.

Usually, there is a terse to-and-fro "you haven't paid your bill", "yes I have, please see confirmation here, paid on this date, this is the reference etc.", "no you definitely haven't", "yes I have" etc. We checked with our (reputable) bank and confirmed payments are going through. Normally the University eventually relents and drops the dispute without further acknowledgement - the degree has been going on for 2 years, with similar drama around most of the bills paid, suggesting they "find" the money eventually and let my relative continue the studies. Subsequent bills do not show any outstanding amounts.

This time, however, they are threatening debt recovery action (and I restate, on bills already paid!). Although the facts clearly check out in our favour, this would be a major annoyance, as well as perhaps a strike on credit score.

Their helpline is not staffed because Covid, Student support offers moral support but no more. The finance department is just impervious to reason. E-mail after e-mail, they insist the funds have not been received, bill is outstanding etc.

What can be done in this situation? Options that vaguely come to mind:

  • Sit tight in comfort that whoever comes after the "debt" will see all is in order. However, this could jeopardise the on-going studies, as well as be a major hassle.
  • Escalate within the University - but it is not clear to whom
  • Seek help from some external student support, or other finance support organisation
  • Threaten some action in response, to motivate the Finance department to get into gear
  • Provide some even more concrete evidence of payment, other than bank transfer details - but what?
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  • 6
    Get a solicitor to tell the Uni to stop pestering you all.
    – RonJohn
    Jun 30 at 15:23
  • 18
    Is this a genuine, bona fide university in which its operations and your relationship with them is entirely legit? (there are many, many "universities" in the UK which merely pretend to be universities to provide student visas to bring in foreign workers. If this is that deal, then you have no legal recourse.) Jun 30 at 15:32
  • 6
    @Harper-ReinstateMonica yes a bona fide uni, totally legit relationship, Master's degree. We're all UK citizens, resident in UK, residency status unrelated to course. Course is distance-learning by design, though what isn't in Covid times. I can't think of anything that is unusual about the set-up.
    – Bennet
    Jun 30 at 15:41
  • 6
    @Bennet You could perhaps look at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education... from a quick skim, the university would have to be a member of the scheme, the student would need to initiate any action, and except for exceptional circumstances you have to have exhausted any internal procedures. Even if they cannot help now, it may give some advice about how to proceed.
    – TripeHound
    Jun 30 at 15:59
  • 3
    This is a question for which I think many of us would love an update on when/how it gets resolved. Jul 3 at 16:39

11 Answers 11

62

Find a name

To escalate, you don't want a random helpdesk - you want a name. In this case, I'd suggest googling "finance director (this university name)". You can then ring the main university switchboard number and ask to be put through to the finance director by name.

Chances are that you won't get them, you'll get their secretary. No matter, because they're more than likely the person who actually deals with details like this. Explain your problem (politely) and ask them to give you a specific person to contact to resolve this, and their phone number.

1
  • this is great advice; and can be used for more than just the OPs problem
    – PeterH
    Jul 2 at 10:18
32

It seems to me that an option not much discussed here is to enlist the aid of someone at your bank. You have the records of the money being disbursed from your account -- it is going somewhere. Your bank ought to know where. It is going to some other account. Between your bank and the university, they ought to be able to confirm that the account the money is going to is correct. It is entirely possible that a typo or other innocent mistake there has been made.

If the account number is right, then it is some kind of error in a communication protocol. Again, your bank is saying the money has been sent, but the university's accounts aren't registering it for some reason. Again, this is something to be resolved between the bank and university.

Call up your bank, repeat this story you told us here, and ask them for one of their specialists for their help. Set up a 3-way phone call with yourself, the bank, and the university with the agenda of not getting off the call until it is all resolved.

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    There is no one to call at the Uni, not in the finance department anyway. Also, the payments have clearly been going through despite the Uni’s protests before, so the problem is clearly on their side, and they refuse to accept it.
    – Bennet
    Jun 30 at 18:04
  • 4
    @Bennet I mean, if you have to time (and given the pandemic today this may not be the most possible), but I'd walk into the bank, speak with a senior banker, explain this story, and have them place a call from their desk while you are right there. They may get bounced around a few times, but they ought to be firm in finding someone to help them resolve this issue today. It is in their interest for this to work right, too. Work as a unified front here. Jun 30 at 18:41
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    @R.Hamilton The question is tagged "UK". The idea that you can "walk into a UK bank branch and talk to a senior banker" is wildly implausible. The (small number of) mainstream UK banks are all national, and often multinational, companies. The only people you will find in a typical branch are the tellers behind the counter, and some "financial advisers" a.k.a. sales staff.
    – alephzero
    Jul 1 at 2:55
  • 6
    This seems like solid advice except the "Set up a 3-way phone call" ignores the OP's "Their helpline is not staffed because Covid". So sadly -1. Jul 1 at 6:03
  • 2
    I'm really not sure what would motivate the bank to go through these steps, unless of course you're in their top customers list and they are ready to dedicate time for you to be sure they're not losing your custom. In the more general case, at best, the bank may be able to get in touch with the recipient's bank to get confirmation that the transfer has gone through, but contacting the recipient directly is not their job, and this would probably not convince them either.
    – jcaron
    Jul 2 at 16:24
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I would strongly disrecommend (?) your first bullet "Sit tight in comfort that whoever comes after the "debt" will see all is in order". Broadly speaking, dedicated debt recovery agencies do not care about the details - they care only that they have been handed a debt, to which they have already added their own fees - and they are going to collect come hell or high water.

I would suggest instead pursuing your second/third bullet, and specifically tracking down whoever at your university is responsible for pastoral care of students. This issue is undoubtedly causing distress to the student, so this is an entirely apporpriate angle to follow. The relevant people might be: a wellbeing service; a chaplaincy; both of these, and/or others. Don't write off the chaplaincy if you are not 'of faith' - they are university insiders and will know the system better than you.

Simply google {X} University "pastoral care" (note the phrase search) and off you go.

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  • 3
    In addition I'd pursue bullet #4 – write (letter or email, either) to the University (your main point of contact + CC the head of finance/billing department) and point out the situation as described on your question, state clearly that you consider this harrasment and tell them you need a response (by a reasonable deadline) confirming they have called off the collection agency. Nip this in the bud, don't sit tight. Jun 30 at 16:07
  • It depends on whether the collection agency is a service provider or if they bought the debt. The latter group is absolutely interested in whether the debt is justified, because they will be out a substantial amount of money if it isn't. Jul 2 at 8:55
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    At least at my university, each student had a specific staff member who was responsible for their pastoral care. I would recommend the student also elevates this through those channels (even if it's just a trusted lecturer, or someone in the Student Union). Much like the chaplaincy, people internal to the university will have much more knowledge (and possibly influence) on how to solve this - or may have even dealt with this exact issue before.
    – user93228
    Jul 2 at 9:29
16

Assuming that you resolve the most recent payment, how about changing your practices for future payments?

The next time a bank transfer is sent, immediately request a receipt from the finance office. "I request that you promptly confirm receipt of the bank transfer [with details]." Repeat the request, daily, by phone and email until you get the receipt.

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    ...and facebook, and twitter and tiktok and every other social media.
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 1 at 17:06
12

Let me add to @AakashM's answer the following:

Begin a paper trail immediately. The fact that this is a frequently recurring problem gives you tremendous weight of evidence if this ends up in court. I'm going to assume you've got such records, and have already shown them to the finance department. I would also scour those previous communications for any mentions of specific personnel involved in prior resolutions, etc. There may be hints as to where the choke is, there. Finally, in addition to pastoral care options, this is the sort of thing that calls for contacting the office of the Dean of the school (or equivalent, I'm American); clearly something in their administrative procedures is amiss.

10

Start by asking them how they suggest you pay them in such a way that it doesn't get lost next time. I know you're following their guidelines, but maybe there's more to it. Maybe there's a certain way that works well for them, and you're not following it. Something akin to putting your account number on a check when you mail one to pay a bill. If their suggestion doesn't work for you, maybe you can negotiate something that works for both of you, going forward. "Gosh, this must be really frustrating for you. You must be getting so many payments from different people, how do you keep them all straight? What can I do next time so that it's easier for you to find my payment?" - You will be correct thinking that this is dumb, it's their job, and they should get better at it - but that won't help solve the problem :-)

Regarding the (false) past-due issue, just keep working collaboratively with them to resolve it. Think about it as a mutual problem that you are working together to solve. You are justified in feeling angry - but expressing that anger or frustration will not help you sleep any better :-)

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    This is dangerous if you're not careful. You may wind up talking to someone who wants to scam you out of your payments. Deviating from the recommended method of payment that you can confirm with 100% reliable sources is generally a bad idea. Jul 1 at 2:52
  • This is dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. On the other hand, it can quickly reveal the scam attempt.
    – fraxinus
    Jul 1 at 17:16
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    THIS is the answer. Given the fact it's repeating, the problem is almost certainly that the transfer is missing a student id or other identifying metadata, so University staff have to manually search around to figure out which student is paying them, which takes time. Cancel the automated payments, and re-set them up, following the University instructions to the letter, especially around descriptions/metadata for the transfer. Jul 1 at 19:53
  • 2
    When I was in college, for four years my mom kept making the same typo in my street address, so all her mail to me took ~14 days longer than anyone else's mail to me :( Jul 1 at 19:53
9

Sounds like a scam.

I don't know if it has a popular name, but it proceeds like this:

  1. Someone who pretends to be an entity you do have a legitimate busines with contacts you.
  2. They claim that you owe them some (reasonable-looking) amount of money
  3. You ask what to do, thinking that a recent money transfer failed for one reason or another
  4. They say "send the money to account XXX"
  5. They disappear with the money.

(Tried on me more than once. Usually resolved when I contact the other party by proper channels.)

Or, variant 2:

  1. You pay properly and in time the amount you owe.
  2. Less than loyal employee channels your payment to someone else's debt.
  3. You get the usual warning of an outstanding debt.
  4. You may get the impression that the payment failed and pay once again. ... or you confront them with some proof of payment and they "fix" the issue.

(This one happens 3/10 times in our local traffic police department.)

p.s. I don't live in UK and I am not sure how much probable are these scams, but your question pretty much looks like one.

5

Worth mentioning to them that raising a credit notice when you're not in debt is libel, which is an expensive error in the UK.

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  • It’s only expensive if you do it to someone rich. You can’t get legal aid for defamation actions, and they tend to be costly, so unless you have a lot of money you can’t afford to sue for libel.
    – Mike Scott
    Jul 2 at 20:13
  • but the university can't afford to defend it either :-) simply threatening a libel action will often sort out the issue
    – Ian Turton
    Jul 3 at 8:59
  • @IanTurton What do you mean by 'Credit Notice'?
    – Steve Kidd
    Jul 6 at 21:35
  • A black mark on your credit rating
    – Ian Turton
    Jul 7 at 7:24
3

First, I'd double check with the finance department that you have the correct account number and sort code for the university. The money has clearly left your bank account with no issues, but they are claiming they haven't received it - assuming their is no foul play going on, possible explanations would be:

  1. You used the wrong account number (either through your own error, or the university's error in providing incorrect details). In this case the money will have been paid to a third party; the university should contact their bank and ask them to monitor the account number you paid the money to, and reverse the payments back to you so you can then pay the correct account number.
  2. The university has received your payment, but doesn't recognise it for some reason. I'd double check with the finance department what reference should be used on bank transfers (they might use specific references to match payments with students). Sending a remittance advice when you pay could also help in future (this might just be an email to the finance department stating the amount you paid, the date and your identity). Unfortunately tracking down your payment might require some effort on their end, which it sounds like they are unwilling to put in at this stage; your payment should show in their bank reconciliations.
2

Like Showsni, I believe this is likely due to their failing to match your payment with your account. This could be due to:

  • You sending the money to the wrong account (see Showsni's answer for what to do in this case).

  • You failing to include the reference they gave you, if any, or providing an incorrect one.

  • Them not being able to correctly process all forms of incoming transfers. Confusingly, the UK has 3 different systems for transfers: BACS, CHAPS and Faster Payments.

    Even though nowadays most payments you make from a UK consumer current account to another UK current account up to £100K should probably be a "Faster Payment", there could be all sorts of reasons why some go through one of the other two (type of the origin of destination account, amount of the transfer, combination of banks...).

    They don't necessarily show up the same way in their statements, and maybe they can automatically match some of them but not the others. In which case they may fall back to a different form of matching, which brings us to...

  • You sending the money from an account with a different name than that of the student. Relying on the surname should only be a fallback measure, as this is highly error-prone. Using references is a much, much better option. I hope the Uni gave you a reference number and that you correctly included it with the payment and that they can correctly recover it from their statements. But if any of those fail, it's a good idea to remind them of the details of the sending account's holder.

  • Still in the less-than-ideal case of them using names rather than reference numbers, there could be several students with the same name, and they may have matched the payment to the wrong account.

So, in your exchanges with them, make sure you include all the details of the payment:

  • Date of the payment
  • Amount
  • Sort code and account number of the destination account
  • Reference number used
  • Full name of the holder of the sending account
  • Possibly account number and sort code of the sending account (not sure if this is information they would usually get on their statements).

Also note that if for whatever reason the payment was sent via BACS rather than Faster Payment, it takes a few days for the payment to reach them, so the date on their side would be slightly different.

0

Someone who may be of help, in at least some US higher education institutions and some companies, are called "ombudsman". Wikipedia provides more info on such an office, whose duty is mainly to help resolve conflicts, at a variety of community or public-state, or private levels.

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