A Tipsy Lesson in Dealing With Credit Card Errors

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If it hasn't already happened, it will one day: a mistake on your credit card statement. Will you know exactly what to do?

This post comes from Cynthia J. Drake.

Heart racing, palms sweating, fingers tightly gripping my carry-on bag – that was me in the airport restaurant.

I’d surrendered my credit card to pay my bill, the waiter was nowhere to be found, and my plane was about to board.

And my pre-flight margarita? Not taking the edge off.

Usually credit card transactions aren’t so dramatic, but in this case, I was not only pressed for time, I had the feeling the bill was going to be wrong. The stressed atmosphere of this understaffed joint just felt like an accident waiting to happen.

Sure enough – hello, phantom chicken wings! I wanted to get it fixed, but my time was up. Either I miss my flight, eat the erroneous charge, or deal with it when I got back home.

Accidents happen…a lot

According to The New York Times, Visa cardholders reported $765.9 million in erroneous transactions last year, while MasterCard processed 15 million disputed charges. These represent very small percentages of total transactions – way less than 1 percent – but the numbers are still big.

And that’s just what we’re catching – credit card use is constantly increasing, while attention spans required to find statement errors are apparently low.  Admittedly biased, watchdog company BillGuard estimates 9 out of 10 people rarely scrutinize their credit card statements.

It’s a recipe for lost money.

Don’t be a patsy

If you don’t regularly examine your charges, or at least your monthly statements, it’s time to start.

• Make sure you weren’t overcharged, or charged for things you didn’t buy. Double charges and honest entry errors are more frequent than you realize.

• Hang on to receipts. Keep your receipts until you’ve reconciled what you were charged with what’s on your statement. This is especially critical when tipping is involved: restaurants, bars, salons, spas, and other service-based businesses.

• Watch for subscription scams. If you find unknown recurring charges in the neighborhood of $10 to $15, take a closer look.  Opt-out subscription scams and other deceptive marketing practices have hooked many consumers. You don’t realize you signed up until you start racking up fees.

How to deal

What should you do when you spot an error? 

Act quickly. The sooner you spot suspect charges and report them, the better.

Contact the merchant. Your first thought when you see an error might be to dispute the charge with your card company. While that’s a nice tool to have in your back pocket, always try to resolve issues with the merchant first. Charge-backs cost the merchant money and hassle, and potentially even the ability to accept credit cards, so most will take them seriously. Be fair – give the business that caused the problem the opportunity to fix it.

That’s how I dealt with my phantom chicken wings: I called the restaurant from home and within a few days, my entire check was credited. Cheers!

Dispute the charge with your credit card company. It’s when the merchant is uncooperative you play the “dispute the charge” card. Your credit card company will issue you a temporary credit and remove the money from the merchant’s account while they sort it out. This is where receipts could come in handy, as well as emails, confirmations, or anything else in writing pertaining to the charge.

• Arbitration is the next step. The vast majority of problems are resolved through the merchant and your credit card company, but there are provisions in the Fair Credit Billing Act for legal arbitration.

• Call in the big guns. If you aren’t able to resolve your issue through other channels, the Better Business Bureau, Attorney General’s office, and Consumer Finance Protection Bureau might lend a hand.

Let’s hope that you never have to go through all these steps. But if it does happen, the next round’s on me.

Stacy Johnson

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