James Daley: Postal charges go down to 'The Wire'

Joy and anger were united in a single moment for me this week, when I finally received Season 5 of The Wire in the post, only to discover that I'd also been fined £8 by Royal Mail for not paying the relevant import duties on my package.

I'd ordered the DVDs from the US branch of Amazon.com, as the box set was released in the States two weeks ago, but won't be available in UK stores until the end of next month.

Given that the DVDs cost less than $39 (£21) – with another $10 for postage across the pond – I was pretty sure that I wouldn't be subject to any import duties or taxes. I'm married to an American, and make regular trips to the States, so I've long been aware of the rules that say I can bring £145 of goods back home each trip, before I'll be hit with any kind of UK tax bill.

What I didn't realise was that when it comes to items sent in the mail, that limit is just £18 – or £36 if they're gifts from one private individual to another.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's no mention of any of this on Amazon's website at the time of purchase. There is, however, some info in the "Help" section of the site, which perhaps understandably says that import duties and taxes are the customer's responsibility and not theirs. Fair enough, I suppose, but it's a shame that this warning is not clearly posted at the point of sale, rather than buried somewhere in the depths.

If I'd known about my tax bill, I'd certainly never have had any problem paying it. The DVDs were much cheaper from the American Amazon site than they will be when they're released over here – even after the extra postage had been taken into account – so the £4.59 which I apparently owed in tax seemed a small price to pay for having my hands on the finale of my favourite TV show a whole month early.

But what really got me angry was having to pay Royal Mail an additional £8 admin charge for intercepting my package – a fine that I had no way of avoiding, as I was never once given the chance to pay my import duty beforehand.

Worst of all, this daylight robbery is sanctioned by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs department, which provides no way of pre-paying your import duty. On the HMRC website, it merely states that the Royal Mail (or courier company) may levy a charge for collecting the import duty.

This has to be a matter for the competition authorities. In today's global society, thousands of British people order goods from internet sites based outside the EU, so how can it be fair that consumers have no choice but to accept an £8 fine from Royal Mail, to pay a bill that they may have always been perfectly happy to pay? There's no alternative, no competition.

At the very least, Royal Mail should have to make its charges proportionate. You can send a letter from one side of the country to the other, and request a signature at the other end, for a couple of quid. So how can it justify an £8 charge for administering collection of a VAT bill?

The Office of Fair Trading is currently in court attempting to outlaw penal bank charges and I can see little difference between these unfair fees and Royal Mail's "international handling fee". The problem, perhaps, is that Royal Mail is still owned by the Government.

Fortunately, the tax threshold is rising to £120 in December, after which most small orders will not be caught out by this scam. But if you're ordering anything more valuable – be careful.

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