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Questions and Answers On Credit Card Billing Errors

Last Updated: July 23, 2017

Since we all use a credit card to purchase everything from gas to groceries, have you ever noticed how little cash we carry in our wallets these days? And that is not for a lack of it (hopefully), but the general overall convenience of paying for everything with plastic. There are people who even pay their mortgage with their credit card just to reap the rewards of frequent flyer miles. But that is a topic for another article.

In this article, we are going to deal with the mishaps you might encounter using your credit card. You might have to deal with billing errors, merchants who charge you incorrectly, someone stealing your information and using it fraudulently, or maybe you just have questions about using your credit card.

What Types of Problems Can Be Disputed?

The Fair Credit Billing Act and the Federal Truth in Lending Act both protect you from honest errors and outright fraud by merchants when you make the purchase through a bank issued credit card. The types of problems can be:

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What If There is an Error on Your Billing Statement? 

If you find an error on your billing statement, turn your bill over and chances are there are instructions to follow. The rules are pretty simple - If you report a problem in writing within 60 days of the billing date, the bank must investigate it and respond to you within 30 days. While they are investigating, you don't have to pay the disputed amount or any finance charges associated with that charge. If their investigation shows the item was correct, they can restore finance charges retroactively and you will have to pay them.

Some banks try to resolve problems over the phone; others insist that you write a letter. If you decide to call, make sure you note the date and time of the call, whom you talked to, and what they promised to do. Then send a letter to them mentioning this information. If you resolve a problem by phone, but the bank doesn't follow through, the confirming letter that you sent will preserve your rights.

What Recourse Do You Have if You Were Ripped-Off By a Merchant?

This applies to any situation listed at the beginning of this section, except billing errors. Fortunately, the U.S. Fair Credit Billing Act gives you strong protection if you used a credit card. Because this comes up so frequently, and people are understandably emotional when they think they've been cheated. We suggest you refer to the legal language found on the back of your bill, under "Special rule for credit card purchases."

What Types of Purchases Qualify Under the Fair Credit Billing Act?

You are protected if all of the following are true:

If some of the above are not true, you are still protected if the credit card company owns or operates the merchant, or the credit card company mailed you the advertisement for what you bought. In that case, your purchase is covered by the rules no matter where you bought or how much you paid.

In addition, you MAY successfully protest charges outside of these parameters, but there is no legal requirement for the credit card company to correct the problem.

Will the Bank Get Involved in a Dispute?

No. Under the law, you must first try "in good faith" to resolve the problem directly with the seller.

What Does "In Good Faith" Mean?

Resolving an issue "in good faith" is not defined in the law, but in practice it means that you behave like a reasonable person. The merchant is expected to act reasonably, too.

At a minimum, you should talk to the merchant's customer service department and send a follow-up letter. You have to allow the merchant a reasonable time to respond. What's reasonable? Depends on circumstances. Enough time for mail to go both ways, plus a couple of working days.

Acting "in good faith" also means that you acted promptly. Don't wait three months after the charge shows up on your bill to complain that you never got what you ordered.

Back orders are a frequent problem. If the merchant tells you the stuff is back ordered, you have the right to cancel the order. You can tell the merchant you don't want to wait and ask for the charge to be canceled. This may not happen the same day, but it should be reasonably prompt. Wait a few days and call the bank to see if the credit has come through yet.

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How to Deal With a Difficult Merchant

Most importantly, remember that the person you are talking to is probably not the person who caused the problem. Don't yell and don't sound crazy or make threats.

Plenty of good people work for bad companies and many work for good companies that make an occasional mistake. You may be lucky and deal with one of them. If your approach is "You dirty rotten so-and-so!" you probably won't get anywhere. If your approach is "There's a problem here; can you help me?" you'll have a better chance of getting your issued resolved.

Be prepared with specific information before you call. Have all the information such as order date, what you ordered (item number and price), when you were promised these items, your credit card number, and how much you were charged. Be clear about what you want - be it a refund, a replacement, shipment by a certain date, repair, etc. Most people respond best if you tell them clearly, calmly and reasonably what you want.

Will the Bank Help If a Merchant Won't Settle the Disagreement?

Yes. In fact, the law says the bank must help. Write or call the credit card issuer and ask for a chargeback. Use the same address as for billing errors and make sure you give these important facts in the letter:

  1. Date you are writing the letter.
  2. Your name and address, as they appear on your billing statement.
  3. Your account number, and the statement date on the bill.
  4. Explain your issue in detail - start with "I am writing about a problem with (company name). The transaction date was (mm/dd), the posting date was (mm/dd), and the transaction amount was $(amount)."
  5. Explain, clearly and briefly, what's wrong.
  6. Explain the fact you tried in good faith to resolve the problem directly with the merchant, but did not succeed. List dates you made phone calls and what was said by the merchant. Include copies of your letters to the merchant and the merchant's response, if any. (Don't overload the bank with this. You're showing that you acted in good faith; don't write a novel.)
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What Does the Bank Do During a Chargeback?

The bank will credit your account and charge the amount back to the merchant. This must happen within one billing cycle, if you have done everything you were supposed to. If the merchant doesn't respond, the amount is gone from your bill forever.

If the merchant disputes the chargeback, the bank has to decide who is telling the truth. For more detailed information on chargebacks, read our article entitled A Chargeback Provides Protection From Fraudulent Credit Card Charges.

What Happens to the Finance Charges on the Disputed Amount?

You don't have to pay them while the bank is investigating. When the bank credits your account, they are also supposed to credit your account with any finance charges that were assessed on the disputed amount from the date of purchase. They may or may not do this without further prompting from you.

What if You Paid the Bill in Full Before Noticing a Problem?

Strictly speaking, the Fair Credit Billing Act says you may not have to pay "the remaining amount due." We have found that some banks aren't quite so picky. Follow the standard procedures for disputing a charge and simply not to bring up the issue of whether you've already paid part or all of it. Odds are your bank won't raise that issue either.

However, it's best to examine bills carefully before you pay them. If you question a charge on the 58th day, a month or more after you've already paid it, the bank is entitled to wonder if you're really acting "in good faith" as the law requires.

How to Avoid Problems With Unauthorized Charges

Credit card fraud has been growing every year and is a serious problem. Many banks have an entire unit devoted to just identity theft and fraud protection and prevention. In the case of unauthorized use of your credit card, the Truth in Lending Act limits the personal liability to $50. There is no time limit to report a card lost or stolen, but if you alert the issuer before someone else goes shopping with your card, you aren't on the hook for the charges.

Debit cards don't get the same treatment. You have to report a lost or stolen debit card within two business days to limit personal liability for fraudulent charges to $50.

When traveling:

When at shops and restaurants:

When using a calling card:

When at home:

How to Handle a Claim Which Involves Goods and Services

If your problem concerns the quality of goods or services purchased on your credit card, the Fair Credit Billing Act gives you the right to dispute the charge and stop payment on that portion of the bill until the matter is resolved by the issuer.

According to the law, the goods must have cost at least $50 and the purchase had to have been made in your home state or within 100 miles of your mailing address.

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