French woman gets phone bill for 12 quadrillion euros

Euro sign and water tapAP Photo/Michael Probst

Solenne San Jose, from Pessac near Bordeaux, got quite a shock when she opened a telephone bill for almost 12 quadrillion euros - that's almost 6,000 times the country's annual economic output.

So what went wrong, and is this the craziest billing mistake of recent years?
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Bonkers bill

The astonishing bill was for 11,721,000,000,000,000 euros, which is roughly £9.4 quadrillion.
It was a final bill, calculated manually, after she closed her account. She said she "almost had a heart attack. There were so many zeroes I couldn't even work out how much it was".

To make matters worse, when she called the call centre, there was a misunderstanding of the scale of the sum, and the call centre worker told her that they couldn't make any changes to the bill. They helpfully offered to set up a repayment scheme.

It was only after a few more calls that the company said they had made a mistake in the bill printing process. To apologise for the shock, they also waived the actual outstanding sum of 117.21 euros.
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Five of the craziest bills...

It's quite an extreme error, but billing mistakes are more common than you might think, and we're not talking a few quid here and there...

1. This has happened in the UK before. In 2003, Brian Law of Huddersfield received a final gas demand - after not getting round to paying his £59 bill. Unfortunately a glitch (whereby a reference number appeared as the amount outstanding) meant the demand was for £2.3 trillion.

2. And these errors haven't stopped. In September this year, pensioner Maggie Tuttle from Westcliff in Essex was mistakenly told on the phone by a call centre worker that she owed British Gas £32,000. We know they've increased their prices, but this is impressive.

3. It's not just in the UK and France where this is happening. In June this year, Kristin Harriger, a single mum from Texas, got a utility bill for $1.3 million dollars for one month. She took a photo of the bill and shared it with her friends, assuming they were playing a joke on her.

Imagine her surprise when she contacted the firm in question and they confirmed it was real. On further investigation, they realised their slight error: they had charged $1,000 per kilowatt-hour instead of $0.09 cents.

4. In some cases, the baffling bills don't go away. In spring last year Kirit Kothari of Cedar Grove New Jersey was billed an astonishing $10,457.90 for three months of his water supply. The company reckons he used around 1 million gallons of water. He asked for his meter to be checked, but the company said the meter was fine. He then went to a lawyer, but was still forced to pay up and pursue a refund through the courts.

5. And it's not just the amounts that go awry. Adam Ries, a German mathematician who died in 1559, received a demand to pay his TV licence. The letter arrived at his last known address - which is used as a centre for fans of the algebra genius. The head of the fan club contacted the licence people. They chose to ignore the fact he had died over 450 years ago, and sent a reminder.

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French woman gets phone bill for 12 quadrillion euros

Using a mobile phone to make and receive calls, send texts and browse the web while abroad can be extremely costly – especially if you are travelling outside the European Union (EU), where calls can cost up to 10 times as much as at home.

To avoid high charges, Carphone Warehouse suggests tourists ensure a data cap is in place, use applications to check data usage, turn off 'data roaming', avoid data-intensive applications such as Google Maps and YouTube and use wi-fi spots to update social networking sites.

Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) is supposed to help people to continue meeting their loan, mortgage or credit card repayments if they fall ill or lose their jobs. However, policies are often over-priced, riddled with exclusions and sold to people who could not make a claim if they needed to.

At one point, sale of this cover - which was often included automatically in loan repayments - was estimated to boost the banks' profits by up to £5 billion a year.
Now, though, consumers who were mis-sold PPI can fight back by complaining to the bank or lender concerned and taking their case to the Financial Ombudsman Service (08000 234567) should the response prove unsatisfactory.

It could be you, but let's face it, it probably won't be. In fact, buying a ticket for the Lotto only gives you a 1 in 13.9 million chance of winning the jackpot.

With odds like that, you would almost certainly be better off hanging on to your cash and saving it in a high-interest account.

No-frills airlines such as EasyJet may promote rock-bottom prices on their websites. But the overall fare you pay can be surprisingly high once extras such as luggage and credit card payment fees have been added - a process known as drip pricing.

Taking one piece of hold baggage on a return EasyJet flight, for example, adds close to £20 to the cost of your flight, while paying by credit card increases the price by a further £10.
It may therefore be worth comparing the total cost with that of a flight with a standard airline such as British Airways.

Cash advances, which include cash withdrawals, are generally charged at a much higher rate of interest than standard purchases.

While the average credit card interest rate is around 17%, a typical cash withdrawal of £500, for example, is charged at more than 26%.
What's more, as the interest accrues from the date of the transaction, rather than the next payment date, costs will mount up even if you clear your balance in full with your next payment.

Supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda often run promotions under which you can, for example, get three products for the price of two.

However, it is only worth taking advantage of these deals if you will actually use the products. Otherwise, you are simply buying for the sake of it, which is a waste of your hard-earned cash.
To avoid paying over the odds, it is also worth checking the price per kilo to ensure that larger 'economy' packs really are cheaper than the smaller versions.

Buy a train ticket at the station on the day of travel and the price is likely to give you a shock - especially if you are travelling a long distance at a busy time of day.

However, you can cut the cost of train travel by 50% or more by going online and making the purchase beforehand - especially if you book 12 weeks in advance, which is when the cheapest tickets are on sale.
Other ways to reduce the price you pay include avoiding peak times and taking advantage of so-called carnet tickets, which allow you to buy, for example, 12 journeys for the price of 10.

Most High Street banks offer packaged accounts that come with monthly fees ranging from £6.50 up to as much as £40, with a typical account charging about £15 per month.

Various benefits, such as travel insurance and mobile phone insurance, are offered in return for this fee. But whether or not it is worth paying for them depends on your individual circumstances.
Before signing up, it is therefore essential to check that you will make use of enough of the benefits, and that you cannot get them for less elsewhere.

Overseas money transfers or travel money purchases attract the same high rate of interest as credit card cash withdrawals.

Worse still, most credit cards – and debit cards – also charge you a foreign loading fee if you use them to make purchases while abroad.
You can, however, avoid these charges by using a Saga Platinum or Nationwide Building Society credit card.

Numbers starting 0871 cost 10p or more from a landline, while those starting 09 can cost more than £1 a minute from a mobile phone.

And the operators of these high-cost phone lines, some of which are banks, often get a cut of the call charges.
Most 09 numbers are linked to scams and should therefore be avoided at all costs, while 0871 numbers can often be bypassed by searching for an alternative local rate numbers on the saynoto0870.com.
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