Questions Of Cash: The danger of paying energy bills online

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Q. In 2004, I switched energy suppliers from British Gas and Powergen to Scottish Power. For the first year, my monthly payments were £44. A year later, this was reassessed to £42.50 monthly. But in November, I received a statement showing that I owed £598.96 and my monthly payments would now be £121.50. This means that my annual bill has risen from £510 to £1,458. Yet throughout the last three years, I have e-mailed my meter readings when requested. AC, Ipswich

A. Scottish Power gave us this statement: "[Your reader] manages his account online. [He] should have been able to see his debt going up and should have known the payments were not enough. About a year ago we decided that we would review these [online-management] customers, but only if we had readings in order to do this. In this case [your reader] did not give us the readings as requested, estimated accounts were issued and we do not review online customers using estimated accounts."

Scottish Power says that in November last year you provided an e-mail meter-reading for the first time since the previous December and it was only then that it realised you were significantly underpaying your account. It added: "If [your reader] does not intend to use the online account as intended, he should let us know and we will remove him from this type of billing. If he stays on this and continues to ignore the meter-reading requests the same thing will happen again."

You have been warned. In an environment of sharply rising energy prices, the risk for customers is not only of receiving unexpected and unaffordable bills, but also of paying inflated prices for energy consumed in the past. The onus is firmly on customers to actively monitor and manage energy accounts. Scottish Power also challenges your calculation of the increase in fuel bill – the new monthly payment of £121.50 includes the cost of paying off your debt of £598.96.

Q. I rang the "tax hotline" of an accountancy firm, Smith & Williamson Solomon Hare, for tax advice and spoke with one of the partners for a few minutes. He said he would do some research and then e-mailed me a one-page letter. The advice was useful – but I was surprised to receive a bill for almost £400. The bill is not itemised so there is no indication of what I was being charged for. I would not have telephoned if I had known a fee would be charged – there was nothing in the advertisement for the hotline to say it would be. CW, Darlington.

A. Smith & Williamson Solomon Hare says the invoice was sent to you "in error" and it has now cancelled the charge. It has also changed its advertising to avoid future misunderstandings. Kate Harrison, an associate director of the firm, says: "Our usual approach is to provide an initial discussion free of charge, while any subsequent oral or written advice is charged for."

Q. BT and First Direct are encouraging me to give up paper bills and statements and get my account information online. I can see the environmental advantages of this, and that it means less filing, but I am concerned that if I do give up the paper copies I will not have the documentation I need when I have to prove my address or identity. Are home print-outs of online bills acceptable for verifying my identity? JD, by e-mail.

A. No, they are not. Online records that you print out yourself can be manipulated and forged, so are not accepted by banks or other service providers – such as mobile phone networks – as proof of address. To open a bank or mobile phone account, you will still need to provide a printed statement containing your address, plus, normally, a passport, driving licence, or other official document that includes your photo. Halifax suggests that you might use a council-tax bill as a proof of address that is provided in printed format. It adds that it tends to rely on the electoral register more than on bills from existing service-suppliers. While there are cost savings to banks and energy companies in not sending you bills, the environmental benefits of this should not be over-stated – nor the avoidance of filing. Your online bank accounts should be printed out and stored in case they need to be produced for HM Revenue & Customs. Obtaining copies of old bank statements can be expensive, even if you bank online.

Q. In August last year I told Virgin Media that I would be unable to make further debit-card payments for my broadband account as I had become unemployed. I specified that it should not attempt to process the payment as I would go overdrawn and I was promised the account details would be removed. But in September, Virgin Media began taking payments again, creating an overdraft which cost me £60 in charges. I then said I wanted my account closed and a refund of the £60 bank charges. I was never told that providing my debit-card details would mean that the payment would automatically be taken. I want you please to obtain what is rightfully mine, which is the £60 in bank charges and £3.50 in phone calls to Virgin Media. MV, by e-mail.

A. Virgin Media points out – reasonably, we suggest – that if you are receiving a service from it you must expect to pay for it. When you provide a company with a method of payment it becomes your responsibility to ensure there are funds available in that account to pay the bill. In your case, when you became aware there would be insufficient funds in your bank account for the debit to be processed, the onus was on you to find an alternative means of paying the bill. However, as a gesture of goodwill, Virgin Media has written off your current £7.80 in arrears and closed your account. It will not be sending you the £63.50 for the bank charges and phone calls.

Questions of Cash cannot give individual advice. Please do not send original documents. Write to: Questions of Cash, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS;

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