Q COSTA RICA – A practice that is more common than you think, although prohibited, is retailers surcharging customers for using plastic. That is to say, at the time for paying a purchase with a debit or credit card, be it a product or service, an extra % is tacked on to the final sale.

That percentage can be as high as 10% or even more.

Cinthia Zapata, head of the government Office of Consumer Support (Dirección de la Oficina de Apoyo al Consumidor) explains that any business tacking on a surcharge is exposed to fines of between ¢3 million and ¢12 million colones.

The practice is prohibited in Article 26 of the “Reglamento de Tarjetas de Crédito o Débito” (Credit or Debit Card Regulations) that establishes that businesses “may not add-on charges for the use of  credit or debit cards, to the detriment of the consumer”.

Adding injury to insult, few retailers will tell the consumer of the surcharge. And when asked why, the general answer could be something like, “every does it” or “everyone knows we do that here”.

The merchant fees for credit cards are very high in Costa Rica from 7-9%, especially for small retailers like a soda (lunch counter or eatery), for example.

Another practice by some retailers, also prohibited, is to either deny accepting a credit or debit card, even when there are signs indicating the business does with a typical excuse that “the machine (card reader) is down”, or offer the customer a discount if paying with cash.

Zapata suggests consumers who are “victims of this crime” report it to the consumer protection agency by calling the consumer hotline at 1311 or 800-consumo or visit the Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Comercio (MEIC) website for more information on your rights as a consumer.

In 2015, the MEIC received 92 complaints. In 2016, the number of complaints was 179. These numbers seem small, but that is not to say the practice is not happening at a great scale. The reality is that most consumers either aren’t aware that the practice is illegal, do not pay attention or notice (the additional charge) too late.