Q: I pay my bills by monthly direct debits. When my electricity company increased my monthly payments last year I thought they were a bit high but agreed as I thought that at least I'd be "saving" something and would have a cushion if it was another cold winter.
I got a bill at the end of February based on an "actual" meter reading that showed that I'd used two and a half times as much electricity from October 2011 until the end of February 2012 as for the same period last year. I knew it couldn't be right as I've had two fewer people in the house and used much less heating over the milder winter. The bill said that the company would take another £400 out of my account in the middle of March. I did my own meter reading which was about 5,000 units less (I know it's right as I had my son and a neighbour check it). I called the company and they agreed to accept my reading and they also promised not to take the additional £400 out of my account.
A few days ago I got a new bill showing that I am about £400 in credit from my direct debits but that they'd also taken the additional £400 they promised not to take. Now they have more than £800 that I don't owe them. They tell me that I will get it back after my "annual review" in July. Where do I stand?
A: When you pay by direct debit the firm does an annual review of your payments and is supposed to adjust your direct debits up or down in order to make sure that you pay enough over the year (enough but not too much!). They use the previous year's electricity usage as a guide to what you are likely to use over the next 12 months and add a bit for rising prices. You won't use exactly the same amount of electricity from one year to the next so the calculation is rarely absolutely accurate, but in your case your direct debits are clearly too high.
If you are more than £150 in credit at your annual review they should pay you back that extra money. But, in this case you should ask them to refund, now, the £400 they took out without agreement and adjust your monthly payments downwards. You should also be able to negotiate a more realistic monthly figure for the next year.
You could agree to pay a little extra each month so that when next year's higher bill comes in, you have that cushion you mentioned. I suspect you've been talking to the billing department until now. Call the customer service department and you're more likely to find someone who will help sort this out.
If you don't get a satisfactory resolution send me your account details and I will take this up for you or call Consumer Direct on 08454 04 05 06.
Q: I started gambling when I was 16 and lost a lot of money. My dad bailed me out, but when I was 18, I got access to some money from a trust fund. I gambled all that away too, but when I asked my dad for help again he refused. Eventually, I was approached by someone in in the street who offered me a loan of £4,000 to cover my debts, but at a high rate of interest. Of course. I gambled it in an attempt to win enough to cover the whole debt, and lost, so when the time came I couldn't pay it back. I know it's all my own fault but I can't talk to my dad or the police and have no idea where to turn.
A: I suspect there are a lot of people reading this column who are in debt because of a gambling habit and wondering what on earth to do. Advisers with the debt charities are seeing people with several payday loans, each one bigger than the last, taken out to cover gambling losses.
Yvonne MacDermid at Money Advice Scotland says: "If a loan is made by an illegal moneylender like the one you've been dealing with there's no legal obligation for you to pay them back. The loan isn't enforceable. Contact the Illegal Moneylending Unit about the lender, get help from a money adviser to sort out your other debts, and get help with your gambling from a specialist treatment organisation. You will have to be brave and take action.
"Start with the illegal moneylending team, as they have the power to get information and bring the offender to justice."
You can report a loan shark in confidence to an Illegal Money Lending Team. If you live in England call 0300 555 2222 or text LOAN SHARK and the details you want to pass on to 60003 or an email to email@example.com. For Wales call 0300 123 3311 and Scotland call 0141 2876 655.
For money advice try your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau, where you will also get information on the treatment organisations in your area.