Consumer rights: 'Why was my £1,000 electricity bill almost forty times the usual?'

Readers ask for help dealing with British Gas and on how to safely become an internet trader

Q. I recently opened my electricity bill (through British Gas) and was faced with a demand for £1,025.58. That's significantly more than the £40 or so that I am usually charged.

British Gas took a reading in March 2008 when I moved into my flat, and have been estimating the bill ever since. On 1 November, a man came round to take a reading and the discrepancy between their estimate and the true meter reading became apparent. However, I found this quite confusing, as I could swear there have been visits to take a reading during the past four years, and so I had assumed that the bill would be correct.

British Gas confirmed that there had been two visits to read the meter in the past two years. However, the information had not been put on their system. There were no readings taken during a two-year period at the beginning of the contract, and then when readings were taken they were not used to update what I should be paying, therefore putting me in this very bad situation.

Surely if a company is obliged to take readings, then it should do something with this information, not just throw it away and let their customers go into massive debit.

I was told that I couldn't make a complaint beyond speaking to the call centre operative, and the bill could not be frozen pending an enquiry. In addition, they are billing me at today's energy price, which of course will differ greatly to the true cost of what was used due to the fluctuating energy price over the past four years. Please can you help?

JH, South London

A. This is an issue about back billing. The Code of Practice for Accurate Bills has a Back Billing sub-clause which says that if your supplier is at fault, they will not seek additional payment for unbilled energy accrued more than one year prior to the bill being issued. British Gas have billed you in that way so I contacted them your behalf. As you know, things have now been sorted out.

This is the statement I was sent by the company: "When he moved into his property, he submitted a meter read which we used to open his electricity account. Despite two visits from meter readers over the next four years, the data was not submitted to our systems due to a technical issue. This meant that the bill was estimated on previous usage for the property.

"When a meter reader subsequently visited the property, we were given a true reading for his account and found there was a £1,000 balance outstanding. We've now apologised for the mistakes that led us to not recording the meter readings properly. We have applied the back billing code and withdrawn all charges prior to 7 February 2011, this produced an outstanding balance of £283.09. We have also added a gesture of goodwill which has reduced the balance further to £200."

When you rang up to query the bill, you were given the wrong answer and the customer care you received fell well short of what you'd expect. However, British Gas responded quickly to my call and got this sorted out straight away.

Q. For the first time ever, I find myself short of money. I've had my hours reduced at work. I can see things are difficult, and I'd rather have my job than be made redundant. But it's left me struggling to pay some bills over the next few months. I've always bought good clothes, shoes and bags and now some of them will probably qualify as "vintage", and I haven't used them for a long time so, I'm thinking of selling part of the collection to make life easier. I've never done the eBay thing and am worried that I won't get the best price or that I'll find buyers who won't pay up. Is it a safe way to go about it?

NH, Manchester

A. I haven't done it either but I know a lot of people who have and no one has reported problems. There are other auction sites such as Amazon.co.uk and Play.com. Check them all out and choose one you feel suits the goods you're selling. As with any business, you want to be where there will be potential buyers.

Register with the site as a seller and set up an account so that you can be paid. PayPal seems to be the account most people use – possibly because it's got a hold on the market but seems to be safe, secure and easy. Don't forget that for each item you will have to pay a fee for listing your goods on the site, as you would in a bricks-and-mortar auction room, and another fee when/if you do sell it.

Take into account the postage to get your sold items to their buyers. It is best to send them recorded delivery so that you have proof of postage. You might want insurance if something is valuable.

There are other ways of selling vintage goods. Vintage traders are always looking for stuff. Some will take your clothes and display them in their shops, and take a percentage when they sell them. Others will buy them from you and sell them on for a profit. Either way, don't hand over the goods until you know the money has been paid.

I know people who have got hooked on selling second-hand goods online or on market stalls and made a reasonable amount of money. Don't forget that income from that kind of trading is taxable, so if you do make enough to pay tax don't forget to tell the tax office about your additional earnings.

www.moneyagonyaunt.com

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