How to Catch Billing Mistakes
Wouldn't you love to know for sure that you're not being overcharged by banks, credit card companies and the like? Attorney Edgar Dworsky, JD, former consumer education consultant for the Federal Trade Commission and creator of the consumer advocacy Web site ConsumerWorld.org explains how you can be certain you aren't being stuck with false charges. Whether it's a bank, utility company, or credit card, he identifies the most common mistakes -- and tells who to call, what to say and how to get the problem solved in your favor.
How to Catch Billing Mistakes Edgar Dworsky, JD
ConsumerWorld.org vercharges by companies -- cell-phone service providers, credit card issuers, utilities, banks and more -- are commonplace. In fact, they could be costing you hundreds of dollars a year.
These errors aren't deliberate. Companies point out that overbilling actually costs them money because customer service representatives must spend valuable time dealing with the resulting billing complaints.
Bottom line: It's up to you to scrutinize what you are charged and then question what you don't understand. Here are the most common billing mistakes and how to handle them...
Common errors: Misapplied charges, such as check-writing fees when you signed up for free checking... bounced check fees when your account has overdraft protection... out-of-network automated teller machine (ATM) fees when you didn't use an ATM outside your bank's network.
What to do: Call the number on your statement within 60 days from the date your statement was mailed -- most will quickly remove such fees.
Common errors: Reading the meter incorrectly... bills based on estimated usage -- when a reading cannot be obtained -- that are wildly over the mark. Estimated usage is based on your patterns over the past year, so charges might even reflect errors on past bills.
What to do: Demonstrate that the reading is incorrect by taking a picture of the meter or scheduling a time for the utility company to send a meter reader to your home. Check the reading with him/her, and write down the number yourself. If the amount doesn't match what appears on your bill, report the error to the utility company. If the problem goes unresolved, contact your state public utilities commission (listed in your phone book).
Common errors: Charges you paid in the previous month that appear on your bill again because they weren't credited to your account... fees for services you didn't order, such as call-waiting... unreasonably high charges because a discount plan you signed up for was discontinued. Example: Your plan had a rate of five cents per minute for calls to Canada. Several months later, the plan was discontinued, but you never saw the notice. Your new rate is 25 cents a minute.
What to do: Complain to the phone company. It may correct your bill and offer to switch you to another plan that will save you some money -- it might charge you less than 25 cents but more than five cents. In general, you should report mistakes and/or overcharges to your phone company as soon as you receive your statement. You have 60 days to dispute unauthorized pay-per-call charges.
Helpful: Consider a one-price plan -- for instance, an unlimited monthly domestic calling plan as part of your long-distance service. Anything you can do to simplify the number of charges on your bill will reduce the likelihood of mistakes and save you time when scrutinizing the bill.
Common error: An item scans for a higher price than the one marked.
What to do: Of course, you should ask for the correct price, but because scanner mistakes happen frequently, it's worthwhile to shop at stores that have "price accuracy guarantees." This means that if there's a mistake, you get the item for free, or in the case of expensive items, you may get $3 to $10 off the correct price. Guarantees are offered by many drugstores and supermarkets.
Common errors: Mistaken charges for use of the minibar, movie rentals and telephone calls from your room. A recent study by Corporate Lodging Consultants found that 11% of all hotel bills are incorrect. Guests were overcharged an average of $11 per stay. Reasons: The complex structure of rates and fees... and the hotel industry has become lax about mistakes because business travelers rarely complain. Many business travelers figure it's not worth fighting inaccurate charges if the expenses are going to be paid by their employers anyway.
What to do: If you use a hotel's express checkout service, take a moment to review your bill for obvious mistakes. Get an employee or customer rep ID number when confirming a negotiated rate for a room -- or ask to be E-mailed a confirmation. Caution: Credit card issuers generally won't credit you back the money if a dispute with a travel vendor is over a rate discrepancy.
Common errors: Charges from a former service provider that you no longer use... extra charges tacked on by your card company, such as credit insurance or other services it sells and you don't want... a merchant's failure to post a credit for returned items... charges for services or goods that you ordered and never received.
What to do: Federal law requires that you first try to resolve the mistake with the company that overcharged you, not the credit card issuer. Technically, to dispute the charge with your credit card company, you must make the request in writing. Practically speaking, many people just call their card issuer. Review your credit card bills on-line once a week. You're more likely to remember what you bought and spot mistakes than if you wait for paper statements to arrive the following month. Also, you'll have fewer items to check than at the end of the month.