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Continuous payment authority

What is a CPA and how do they work?

published: 22 February 2022
Read time: 5 minutes

Continuous payment authorities are used to pay bills and subscriptions, but how are they different from standing orders and direct debits, and how can you cancel them? Our guide explains more…

What is a continuous payment authority?

A continuous payment authority (CPA) is when you grant a company permission to take one or more payments from your debit card or credit card. 

CPAs are not the same as a direct debit or standing order because your contract is directly with the merchant, as opposed to instructing your bank. 

But just as with direct debts and standing orders, you do have the legal right to cancel them at any time – and the charging company must comply with your request. 

CPAs are known by a variety of other terms including recurring payments, recurring transactions and regular card payments. 

Man paying with credit card

How does a continuous payment authority work?

CPAs are often set up when you take out a subscription or a payday loan, for example. You must provide the 16-digit long number on your debit or credit card to the company so they can take payments direct from your bank account. The CPA effectively gives the merchant or retailer permission to take money out of your account to cover the goods or services it provides on a regular basis. These amounts can vary each time – as can happen with payday loan repayments for example.

While similar to standing orders and direct debits, CPAs can usually be spotted because they require you to provide your card number rather than your bank account and sort number.   

Once you have given permission for a CPA, it can become a recurring payment until cancelled. This can catch customers out. For example, if you take out a subscription with a free trial for the first six months, a CPA could kick in after the six-month trial period when you’ve forgotten about the initial purchase.

CPAs can be taken out on both on your credit card and debit card. If you have a recurring payment coming off your credit card, by definition it will be a CPA because credit cards don’t allow any other types of recurring payments.

What are CPAs most commonly used for?

CPAs can be used for a range of goods and services, including: 

  • Payday loan repayments

  • Gym memberships

  • Magazine and website subscriptions

  • Mobile phone and TV subscriptions 

  • Debt collection agencies

  • Annual car insurance

How is a CPA different to a direct debit or standing order?

A CPA is different from a direct debit or standing in order in the following ways: 

Set-up - with standing orders and direct debits, you have an agreement with your bank to pay a fixed amount to an individual or company at regular intervals. In the case of direct debits, it’s a contract called a direct debit mandate. If the merchant, for example, an energy company, wants to increase payments, it must inform you in writing first.

In contrast, with a CPA, your contract is directly with the merchant, giving them permission to take money through your debit or credit card by providing them with the long number on the front of your card. Amounts may vary, for example, in the case of payday loan repayments.

Cancellation - you can cancel standing orders or direct debits whenever you like through your banking app, online bank account or by contacting your bank. If a payment is taken in error, the Direct Debit Guarantee means your bank provides a full refund – and you won’t have to rely on the company to repay you.  

In the case of a CPA you cancel with your bank or the company taking the payment, and they are legally required to stop taking payments as soon as you request cancellation. You are still entitled to a refund if any money is taken without your permission, but it must be sought from the company in the first instance.

What are the pros and cons of a CPA?

CPAs are a very popular payment method and there are a range of advantages and disadvantages. 

Pros 

  • CPAs allow you to set up a payment channel quickly and remove the responsibility of remembering to make monthly subscription or loan repayments

Cons

  • CPAs effectively give companies permission to take a payment whenever they think one is due. This could lead to money leaving your account unexpectedly 

  • CPAs can kick in after an initial introductory period (for example after a 3-month free trial or subscription) with account holders unaware 

  • If you switch accounts or cards, CPAs do not automatically switch as well – so you may have to set them up again

  • CPAs can prove more difficult to cancel than standing orders and direct debits

  • Mistakes can be made and refunds difficult to recoup  

How do I set up a CPA?

Setting up a CPA is easy. You’ll just need your card details and follow the company’s instructions when taking out a subscription. Always make sure you’re happy with the conditions of payments – including how much you’ll pay and when the money will leave your account – before going ahead.

Can I avoid using a continuous payment authority?

In many cases you might be able to avoid using a CPA if you prefer not to. Alternative options include asking the company whether they are set up to receive direct debits or standing orders, or where possible settling what you owe in a single payment. You could also use a prepaid card. Even though the firm can set up CPA on the card, they will only be able to take money that is pre-loaded. 

What are the common traps of CPA?

Customers are typically caught out with CPAs where they are enticed by a free trial to a subscription service and agree to terms and conditions that state unless you cancel by a certain period, money can be taken from your account. The challenge is that time passes and it can be easy to forget you have signed up for a CPA. 

In extreme cases, money can be taken years after the initial subscription was taken.  

More unscrupulous companies have also been known to set up CPAs and take unwarranted amounts from customers before dissolving the company and leaving little chance of a refund.

Can I stop a continuous payment authority?

Customers have a right to stop CPAs either by contacting their bank/card issuer or the company taking the payment.  

It’s best practice to contact both and then check your next statement to make sure it has been cancelled.  The deadline for stopping a payment is before the close of business on the working day before the payment is due. If you miss the deadline, you can’t stop the payment being taken, but once notified, the company is legally required to act. 

Cancellation of a CPA can be done over the phone, by email or in a bank branch. It’s worth noting that cancelling a CPA does not absolve you of any debt. If you still owe the company money, you should get in touch with them to settle or it could affect your credit rating.

What happens to my CPA when my credit card expires?

Unlike a direct debit, a CPA is linked to your debit card or credit card. This means when your credit or debit card expires the CPA may default and no more payments can be taken. To continue making payments, you’ll need to contact the company and establish permission for them to set up a new CPA with your new card. 

What happens to my CPA if I switch my bank account provider?

If you’re switching bank accounts through the seven-day switching guarantee, direct debits and standing orders will be automatically moved across, but CPAs won’t. 

To continue payments from your new bank account debit card you’ll have to get in touch with the relevant company and provide your new debit card details.

The same will be the case if you close your credit card account and set up a new account with a new credit card provider. 

How can I complain about a continuous payment authority?

If you ask to cancel a CPA, the bank or company must honour this request. If further payments are taken, they are unauthorised and should be refunded. But sometimes things go wrong, and in this case you might need to raise a complaint.

Contact the company first – and then your bank or card provider - to see if they can rectify the situation. 

Provide as much evidence as you can about what happened, including when you signed up for a payment, how much it was for, when you tried to cancel it and what you’re unhappy about. 

Your bank needs to give you their final response within 15 days for complaints about payment services. If you’re unhappy with their response, or if they don’t respond, you should contact the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), which is a free and independent arbitration service. 

As well as having difficulties cancelling a CPA, customers might also complain about not authorising the CPA in the first place or being unaware one was being set up. They may also have concerns over the amount or frequency of payments, or not agreeing to renew after an initial term. In such instances you should also make a complaint. 

Other useful guides

How do credit card refunds work?

Understand credit card fees and how to avoid them

Claiming money back when card purchases go wrong

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