Published: 06:00, 09 June 2021
| Updated: 16:23, 14 June 2021
A motorist says she was ordered to pay £322 in "completely unnecessary" fines after her DartCharge account was closed due to "inactivity" during the pandemic.
Drivers who cross over the bridge have to pay the £2.50 charge online or over the phone by midnight the following day to avoid costly fines.
Alternatively, customers can set up a DartCharge account with their car registration where fees are collected automatically.
Mrs Finlay, who now lives in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, topped up her account on numerous occasions prior to the pandemic and had £9.94 remaining, enough to cover the £7.50 total cost.
But instead of taking her payment the 56-year-old says she was issued three penalty charge notices in the post totalling £322.50 – amounting to 43 times the value of the three trips.
When she queried this she was told her DartCharge account was "inactive" as it had not been used for the last 12 months.
Mrs Finlay quizzed call centre staff, based in Leeds, as to why they could not use the money already in her account but was told reopening this was a different process and she would need to lodge a separate application to reclaim the money.
What came next was a "a six month journey of stressful phone calls" and emails with the toll operators, she claimed.
"It is just an absolute joke," Mrs Finlay said. "They have got my money and now they want £322, it is a money making scheme.
"Holding onto the money in those accounts and then issuing PCNs when people believe those accounts are taking care of the cost of the crossings made."
Mrs Finlay says after many discussions with call centre staff she was eventually offered the opportunity to pay for the individual crossings.
But she missed the window of opportunity and claimed automated messages went straight to her junk mail.
She has since paid the equivalent of three crossings online but claims she has not received any confirmation enforcement action against her has been dropped.
The payroll manager, who has been helping process furlough payments over lockdown, believes the charges are "completely unnecessary" given the restrictions placed on people's movements over the last 15 months.
She added: "The unnecessary administration over the last six months, since the crossings in October 2020, and stress caused is mind blowing, particularly while we are living through a pandemic and all trying to pull together for the greater good."
The motorist has penned a letter to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to raise awareness of the unexpected process of account closures.
It comes after a freedom of information request by MoneySavingExpert.com found as of last November there were almost 78,000 accounts closed automatically with a total of £1,014,414 still inside.
They had been inactive for 15 months before being shut down.
Highways England says users are clearly warned when they sign up and the details are fully set out in its terms and conditions.
This sets out that if customers do not use their Dart Charge pre-pay account for a period of more than 12 consecutive months, they are sent a notification which provides the option to keep the account open, or obtain a refund and close the account.
After 90 days the account will automatically close.
It further explained it was unable to reopen automatically closed accounts or automatically refund account-holders because it cannot assume all the details previously held remain unchanged.
A spokesman for Highways England said: "Mrs Finlay was offered the opportunity to settle the outstanding Road User Charge (RUC) payments on three separate occasions.
"Upon receipt of the RUC after the third request, the PCNs were cancelled.
"Mrs Finlay has been informed how to claim a refund of her account balance, and was provided a full response to her complaint on May 25 which further detailed this."
Pledges were originally made to end the DartCharge when the debt for building the bridge was repaid nearly 20 years ago in March 2002, but charging has continued.
The charging order was due to expire last year but the government has since confirmed it will "remain in force indefinitely".
The Crossing raked in more than £200m in income last year, of which a third was generated from fines.
Contributions are allocated to Department for Transport coffers and pumped back into road infrastructure projects but local residents and councillors have called for this to be better allocated locally.
Last month, the French company Emovis, which currently operates online toll collections for the busy thoroughfare between Kent and Essex, secured a joint contract worth £270 million to continue running the operation.
Highways England says there are no current plans to increase the charge.