Did the Gas Pump Take More Than You Paid For?
Pre-authorization charges are a common practice when a vendor (a gas station, a hotel, or a rental car agency) doesn’t know exactly how much of their service you’re going to pay for. The hold ensures that the vendor will get appropriately paid after you’re done, but this can put consumers in a tough spot.
You may have discovered an extra $90 charge on your card after you get gas at your local station. Sometimes, the transaction can last for days before it reverts to the actual amount you spent at the pump.
There are many news stories of this happening to people, whether they stop for gas at a chain station or a mom & pop location. They pay the amount they intended for the transaction, plus an additional charge for much more that they didn’t plan on spending, but it appears as two different charges on their statement or in their online banking account.
What happens is when you use your debit card at a pump that does not require a PIN, your bank freezes an amount on the card (also known as a pre-authorization hold). This hold is placed for up to 72 hours, at which point the gas station conducts a “batch” transaction that tells the bank how much the actual amount of the gas transaction was.
How long the hold is depends on the bank. Many banks will tie up your cash for days. The exception is Current members, who get gas holds instantly returned to them.
The amount of the hold depends on the gas company. Every gas company has its own policy regarding how much money it blocks, ranging from as little as $1 all the way up to $90.
This is because when you pull up to the pump, the gas company does not know how much gas you’re going to buy. The gas is not like an item in their convenience store, which has a pre-set price.
To recoup their losses from people trying to willfully pay with cards linked to accounts with insufficient funds, the gas companies place a hold on a set amount of your money. This protects the gas companies and ensures that they get paid for the gasoline you buy from them.
It is normal for some gas stations to do this for first-time buyers from that particular station, as was the case for a couple in Cleveland who found themselves with a $151 hold.
This security measure only applies if you don’t use a PIN number at the pump. PIN-based debit transactions are carried out immediately, so the bank doesn’t need to reserve additional funds on the off-chance that you’re going to skip out on what you owe.
This is a standard practice for industries where the vendor is not always sure how much to charge you at the point of sale. When you rent a hotel room or a car, the respective vendor has a similar arrangement with a bank and places a pre-authorization hold on your account. Assuming you leave the hotel room or return the car without incurring additional charges, the hold is then removed and you are left with exactly the amount you intended to pay.
However, consumer advocates aren’t fans of pre-authorization holds because this can put an undue strain on a person’s bank account. People who often live paycheck to paycheck might not have a lot of money in their account and can’t afford to have an additional $90 charge for gas, for no fault of their own. Even if the money is eventually returned to them a few days later, it could cause them to overdraft their account and thus incurring additional fees. The exception is Current members, who are able to overdraft up to $200 with no overdraft fees.
Some banks have set up systems so their debit card users won’t have any bounced checks if their holds are released on the same day they happen. This is not used by all banks, and consumer advocates warn that when you pay at the pump without a PIN, you’re exposing yourself to the risk of a lot of your money being temporarily unavailable for days at a time. The one exception to this is Current. We instantly return those held funds to members so your cash isn’t tied up.
Protecting Yourself at the Pump
There are some things you can do to protect yourself from the gas pump taking more than you paid for.
- If you have to use a debit card, pay where you can use your PIN number since PIN-based transactions are processed immediately.
- Use a Current account, which offers instant gas hold returns for members.
- Using a credit card will avoid the risk of a pre-authorization hold (although there are still fees when using credit).
- Paying by cash avoids this problem entirely, and some gas stations even offer minor discounts on cash transactions.
- If you have a gas company’s proprietary charge card, you might not have to pay a pre-authorization hold amount.
By following one or more of these methods, including using Current, and keeping a close eye on your bank account, you can avoid the unpleasant surprise of the gas pump taking more than you paid for.
'The Gas Station Put a Hold on All My Money:' How to Get Around the Gas Pump Hold Fee. (September 2020). WFMYNews2.
Column: Why Gas Stations Charge Your Debit Card More. (March 2018). Gaston Gazette.
Pilot Gas Customer Upset About $151 Hold on Credit Card When Buying Gas: Money Matters. (March 2019). Cleveland.com.
Here’s Why Hotels Put That Mysterious ‘Hold’ on Your Credit Card. (December 2014). Money Talks News.
Consumers Find Themselves “Held Up” at Gas Pump. (October 2013). 10WBNS.
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