The holidays are over, but the bills are just starting to come in. That means its time to check your credit card bills to ensure you aren't charged for things you didn't buy.
Fair Credit Billing
Have you ever been billed for merchandise you returned or never received? Has your credit card company ever charged you twice for the same item or failed to credit a payment to your account? While frustrating, these errors can be corrected. It takes a little patience and knowledge of the dispute settlement procedures provided by the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA).
The law applies to "open end" credit accounts, such as credit cards, and revolving charge accounts - such as department store accounts. It does not cover installment contracts - loans or extensions of credit you repay on a fixed schedule. Consumers often buy cars, furniture and major appliances on an installment basis, and repay personal loans in installments as well.
What types of disputes are covered?
The FCBA settlement procedures apply only to disputes about "billing errors." For example:
- unauthorized charges. Federal law limits your responsibility for unauthorized charges to $50;
- charges that list the wrong date or amount;
- charges for goods and services you didn't accept or weren't delivered as agreed;
- math errors;
- failure to post payments and other credits, such as returns;
- failure to send bills to your current address - provided the creditor receives your change of address, in writing, at least 20 days before the billing period ends; and
- charges for which you ask for an explanation or written proof of purchase along with a claimed error or request for clarification.
To take advantage of the law's consumer protections, you must:
- write to the creditor at the address given for "billing inquiries," not the address for sending your payments, and include your name, address, account number and a description of the billing error.
- send your letter so that it reaches the creditor within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you.
Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you have proof of what the creditor received. Include copies (not originals) of sales slips or other documents that support your position. Keep a copy of your dispute letter.
The creditor must acknowledge your complaint in writing within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The creditor must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after receiving your letter.
What happens while my bill is in dispute?
You may withhold payment on the disputed amount (and related charges), during the investigation. You must pay any part of the bill not in question, including finance charges on the undisputed amount.
The creditor may not take any legal or other action to collect the disputed amount and related charges (including finance charges) during the investigation. While your account cannot be closed or restricted, the disputed amount may be applied against your credit limit.
Will my credit rating be affected?
The creditor may not threaten your credit rating or report you as delinquent while your bill is in dispute. However, the creditor may report that you are challenging your bill. In addition, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits creditors from discriminating against credit applicants who exercise their rights, in good faith, under the FCBA. Simply put, you cannot be denied credit simply because you've disputed a bill.
...the bill is incorrect?
If your bill contains an error, the creditor must explain to you - in writing - the corrections that will be made to your account. In addition to crediting your account, the creditor must remove all finance charges, late fees or other charges related to the error.
If the creditor determines that you owe a portion of the disputed amount, you must get a written explanation. You may request copies of documents proving you owe the money.
...the bill is correct?
If the creditor's investigation determines the bill is correct, you must be told promptly and in writing how much you owe and why. You may ask for copies of relevant documents. At this point, you'll owe the disputed amount, plus any finance charges that accumulated while the amount was in dispute. You also may have to pay the minimum amount you missed paying because of the dispute.
If you disagree with the results of the investigation, you may write to the creditor, but you must act within 10 days after receiving the explanation, and you may indicate that you refuse to pay the disputed amount. At this point, the creditor may begin collection procedures. However, if the creditor reports you to a credit bureau as delinquent, the report also must state that
you don't think you owe the money. The creditor must tell you who gets these reports.
...the creditor fails to follow the procedure?
Any creditor who fails to follow the settlement procedure may not collect the amount in dispute, or any related finance charges, up to $50, even if the bill turns out to be correct. For example, if a creditor acknowledges your complaint in 45 days - 15 days too late - or takes more than two billing cycles to resolve a dispute, the penalty applies. The penalty also applies if a creditor threatens to report - or improperly reports - your failure to pay to anyone during the dispute period.
An important caveat
Disputes about the quality of goods and services are not "billing errors," so the dispute procedure does not apply. However, if you buy unsatisfactory goods or services with a credit or charge card, you can take the same legal actions against the card issuer as you can take under state law against the seller.
To take advantage of this protection regarding the quality of goods or services, you must:
- have made the purchase (it must be for more than $50) in your home state or within 100 miles of your current billing address;
- make a good faith effort to resolve the dispute with the seller first.
The dollar and distance limitations don't apply if the seller also is the card issuer - or if a special business relationship exists between the seller and the card issuer.
Other billing rights
Businesses that offer "open end" credit also must:
- give you a written notice when you open a new account - and at certain other times - that describes your right to dispute billing errors;
- provide a statement for each billing period in which you owe - or they owe you - more than one dollar;
- send your bill at least 14 days before the payment is due - if you have a period within which to pay the bill without incurring additional charges;
- credit all payments to your account on the date they're received, unless no extra charges would result if they failed to do so. Creditors are permitted to set some reasonable rules for making payments, say setting a reasonable deadline for payment to be received to be credited on the same date; and
- promptly credit or refund overpayments and other amounts owed to your account. This applies to instances where your account is owed more than one dollar. Your account must be credited promptly with the amount owed. If you prefer a refund, it must be sent within seven business days after the creditor receives your written request. The creditor must also make a good faith effort to refund a credit balance that has remained on your account for more than six months.
Suing the creditor
You can sue a creditor who violates the FCBA. If you win, you may be awarded damages, plus twice the amount of any finance charge - as long as it's between $100 and $1,000. The court also may order the creditor to pay your attorney's fees and costs.