WHEN confronted with an energy bill 100 times larger than normal, most people would immediately assume their provider had made a mistake.
But imagine the shock of being told that – unfortunately – the bill is correct and you have to pay up.
This was the nightmare facing Martin Ruffle, the owner of Bridgeside Truck and Van Sales in Portsmouth, when he called British Gas after receiving an electricity bill for £16,500.
After picking his jaw up off the floor, Mr Ruffle told himself that the firm must be in the wrong – after all, he had been receiving and paying electricity bills for years.
And what’s more, he could remember meter readers visiting his property and taking the reading off his gas meter.
But in a horrible scenario which even British Gas admits ‘happens from time to time’ Mr Ruffle’s electricity bills had been estimated incorrectly for years – in this case dating back to June 2008.
This meant that although he had been regularly depositing £66 a month into a British Gas bank account, the real amount he should have been paying was much higher.
So when a real reading arrived and the company billed him up to date, it generated an eye-wateringly steep bill.
‘It’s just insane,’ he said. ‘I’ve been paying what they asked, and as far I knew they were getting meter readings from me, but now I find out there is a massive shortfall.
‘To be honest I don’t even understand how they can do this, if they’ve made a mistake, why do I suddenly have to find thousands of pounds to pay for it.
‘It isn’t fair and I’m not going to just roll over without a fight.’
British Gas admitted that a computer error was to blame for Mr Ruffle’s meter not being read – but maintained it was his responsibility to send them accurate meter readings.
Domestic customers can only be billed for a total of one year’s gas or electricity when situations like this arise – as per Ofgem guidelines – but business customers have no such protection.
Mr Ruffle said: ‘I can’t believe they would try and blame me for what’s happened. Why do they employ meter readers if they’re not going to do their jobs.
‘They have already said they are the ones at fault, and it is just a cop-out to claim customers should be keeping track of their own meters.’
As a gesture of goodwill British Gas reduced Mr Ruffle’s bill to £11,500 after Streetwise got involved, and also offered to install a high-tech smart meter which will send readings automatically to the company.
But he is still not happy, and said he is seeking legal advice about what to do next.
Sara Powell-Davies, spokeswoman for British Gas, said: ‘We are currently working with Mr Ruffle to resolve the issue.
‘The bill that has been sent out was confirmed as being accurate following a site visit by one of our engineers.
‘We urge all British Gas customers to check every bill to ensure the readings are correct and they are being charged the right amount.’
News consumer rights expert Richard Thomson said Mr Ruffle’s problem was only too common, and agreed that it can be avoided by keeping track of your meter readings.
He said: ‘This problem is not at all unusual because the requirement that the utility companies must take meter readings at least once a year does not apply to business customers.
‘I believe the rules should be changed to provide businesses with more protection, but in the mean time business users should take their own meter readings at least once a year, and forward them to their energy providers and ask for a bill to be made up.’