Questions Of Cash: The danger of paying energy bills online

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;

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree Group have been well es...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000 : SThree: Recruitment is a sales role ...

    Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

    $200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'