Questions Of Cash: Paying the price for an innocent error

Q. I applied for an Alliance & Leicester premier current account and associated premier regular saver internet account in June last year. I was abroad from the end of the month until 23 July and returned to find eight pieces of mail from A&L, one of which told me my first payment to the saver account was due on 1 August. I contacted my current bank and arranged for £500 to be transferred to A&L and monthly thereafter. I received a letter from A&L dated 1 August indicating there were insufficient funds to cover a transaction – £250 to the Premier Regular Saver – and I was charged £34 for a failed transaction.

I contacted A&L and my current bank and eventually established that I had wrongly quoted the A&L sort code. The payment had been sent to A&L on time, but had been returned. I had used the sort code from the cheque book, but it turns out that a different sort code is needed for transfers. When I phoned A&L to discuss this, its first comment was that I wouldn't get the money back as the bank charges test case was imminent. Despite my explanation of how the problem had arisen, A&L said nothing could be done. I asked to speak to a manager and was told none was available. Several subsequent calls had similar responses. I have now had three more bank charges of £25, with a total in charges of £115. Can you get A&L to see sense? IT, Glasgow.

A. The problem originates with the way A&L applies sort codes and customer account numbers. A spokeswoman explains: "Alliance & Leicester's sort code is 72-50-0, the sixth digit is the same as the first digit of the customer's account number. The account number has nine digits and therefore when setting up direct debits or payments into an account it is necessary to quote an eight-digit version of the account number. This is the nine-digit number minus the first digit." No wonder you had difficulty filling in the forms correctly!

A&L explains "this information is explained on page 4 of the Welcome Pack, which would have been sent when the account was opened". The explanation is also at the front of all A&L cheque books. A&L seems to regard this as adequately explaining the situation – our sympathy is with you in missing this. However, A&L accepts that you made a genuine error and it is refunding the charges, which it calculates at £109, plus an extra £50 as a goodwill gesture. A&L disputed our suggestion that many people probably make a similar error, saying that "most customers understand" which sort code to use when communicating with other banks. Apparently, A&L's unusual use of sort codes is a legacy of its takeover of the Girobank 18 years ago, and it plans to introduce eight-digit sort codes to meet industry standards.

Q. I bought a guitar on an American website. I was unaware until contacted by FedEx that it had been holding the guitar in a warehouse at Stansted airport for several days. FedEx refused to release it until I paid £304 in customs and VAT charges. I paid this by debit card, which I do not have a receipt for, despite requesting this from FedEx several times. I have now had a demand from FedEx for £300, even though the £304 has been taken from my account. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to resolve this with FedEx's disputes department. VB, by email.

A. FedEx accepts that you made the initial payment to enable the release of the guitar. The problem was caused by FedEx raising an invoice to you for the wrong value. To apologise for its errors, FedEx has repaid you the full £304 and cancelled the incorrect invoice.

Q. I have had countless problems with Orange's internet service, which I need your help to resolve. I was with Freeserve, which was bought by Wanadoo, which was then bought by Orange. I was happy with the service until spring last year. I was then persuaded I should opt for an improved package which cost me less and gave me greater broadband width. Since then I have had repeated problems with email messages going to the wrong destinations or not being delivered. When I tried to resolve this with Orange I seem to end up with a call centre in India, speaking to people who are not very good and seem not to be properly trained. On two occasions I spoke to Orange, and its people insisted the problems were with my computer, but eventually it emerged that it was an issue of line failings, which took days to resolve. I am so fed up I now want to change service provider, but I need a code number from Orange to open another account, which I cannot get them to provide. BD, London.

A. It has taken several weeks to sort out what should have been a simple matter to resolve. We eventually obtained a statement from Orange, which reads: "Orange takes its commitment to customer services extremely seriously and we would like to take this opportunity to apologise to [the reader]. We can confirm that his account has been closed and a refund of service charges from August, along with a gesture of goodwill, have been sent to him for the inconvenience caused." We asked Orange to state what the gesture of goodwill was, but it said it was up to you to let us know – you tell us it was £50. Given your allegation that Orange has made at least 20 errors in its handling of your account, the sum might be regarded as no more than adequate. This is just one of several complaints we have had about Orange in recent months: as we have previously commented, it is time for the company to improve its customer service standards.

Q. We moved from Exeter to Budleigh Salterton in November 2006 and received a final gas bill from Npower of £134.67, less a credit of £47.13, leaving a total of £87.54 which we paid in April. We have been contacted by a debt collecting agency and threatened with legal action if we do not pay an additional £58.23. I have been trying unsuccessfully to get a response from Npower and the debt collection agency and want an assurance that we will not go on a register of bad debtors. LC, Budleigh Salterton.

A. Npower has written-off the balance of £58.23, informed the debt collecting agency and assures us that you will not have an adverse comment placed on your credit reference file. However, to avoid similar problems in the future, we suggest you pay your bills more promptly.