Consumer Watch: How to avoid overcharges and overbilling

Consumer Watch: How to avoid overcharges and overbilling

October 8th, 2017 by Ellen Phillips in Business Around the Region

In checking my monthly bills, I've noticed several billing mistakes in the past few months. I do get the bills corrected but it's frustrating. Are some companies dishonest or are their employees simply incompetent? — David Dissect

Dear Mr. Scrutinize: While researching these overcharges, I've found, unfortunately, overbilling is far more commonplace than most of us realize. (Actually I'm glad you've written about this issue, as my poor husband believes I'm the only consumer alive whom companies red-flag.)

As I've always urged, the more we dissect every single bill that comes along, the more likely we are to catch mistakes — fraudulent or otherwise — that saves us tons of money over the long run. According to ConsumerWorld.org and a few other consumer advocacy groups, overcharges seem to center on six particular business types. With heaps of information about each kind and the best methods to fix these errors, heads up, eyeballs wide open to see if you've fallen in any of these categories (or, worse, more than once). In no order of importance ...

-Utility companies: Speaking of red flags, those folks and I are on a first name basis! First off, estimated usage is based on last year's usage patterns (unfair, in my opinion). What if last year's bills were in error? POW! Double whammy to the wallet! Even if a meter reading isn't accessible (and sometimes a meter is even read incorrectly to boot), you can take some protective steps, assuming you don't want to go on budget billing. 1) Grab your camera and take a photo of the meter; schedule an appointment with the applicable technician. 2) When "Teddy Tech" arrives, you both check the reading, write down the number and be sure he/she does the same. If this number doesn't match up with what's on your bill, then get back in touch with a company supervisor. 3) If no resolution occurs, contact your state public utilities commissioner whose address you can find in the phone book or online. For more oompah, personalize the complaint to the following: Alabama — Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh (Twinkle.Cavanaugh@psc.albama.gov); Georgia — Stan Wise (gapsc@psc.state.ga.us); and Tennessee — David Jones (1-800-342-8359; 615-770-6851).

-Phone companies: Any charges for services not on your plan? Just because a subscriber pays for caller ID doesn't mean he or she automatically uses call waiting and so forth. Don't remember dialing information to check on a number? How about a charge you paid last month but pops back up again? All these scenarios mean courteous complaining on your part. Just as quickly as you receive your bill, check for errors and call immediately; phone companies allow only 60 days to dispute unauthorized charges. (FYI: Call Free Yellow Pages for persons, business and government listings at 800-935-5697.)

-Banks: Some banks misapply charges so keep an eye out. For example, if you have a no-fee checking account and check writing fees show up on your monthly statement, your hard-earned money is flying into Bitter Bank Business' pocket. The same holds true for other problems, such as "Bitter" charging for a bounced check when you have overdraft protection or charging an out-of-network ATM fee if you used the bank's ATM colleagues. If even one nickel mistakenly escapes your account, call your bank within 60 days from the date it mailed the statement.

-Credit cards: Without repetition ad nauseum, some of the common errors we often fail to catch on our statements do bear a recap. For example, I canceled an insurance policy that I paid via credit card. If I weren't so fanatical about checking receipts with a fine-tooth comb, I might have missed the quarterly debit my service provider charged me when I was no longer insured. So at all times, check for any credits just in case the merchant failed to hold up his end of the bargain. Technologically-speaking, just as experts advise you periodically check your bank accounts online to make certain money's where it's supposed to be, these authorities also urge us to review online credit card statements on a weekly basis. By doing so, that old early bird (you) almost always gets Mr. Long-Suffering Worm (credit card assurance).

-Hotels: Minibars, in-room movies, telephone calls — each or all might trip up the traveler if we're not exceedingly careful. Corporate Lodging Consultants (www.corplodging.com) found 11 percent of all hotel bills are wrong and visitors were charged an average of $11 per stay. While many guests might not worry about an occasional $11 (and almost never complain), the accumulated amount for all overnighters could quite possibly pay the deficit down to a paltry few billion! Be sure to ask for an email confirmation of the negotiated rate and the employee's name and/or ID who agreed to that amount. If you notice a discrepancy upon check-in or checkout, immediately ask to speak with hotel management; if this person doesn't resolve the matter, then contact your credit card company, and, if you're a business traveler, your employer.

-Stores: Again, I won't reiterate the horrors of department and grocery store GOTCHA situations. On the other hand, the most common and most overlooked error at the expense (literally) of our checkbooks is when an object scans for a pricier amount than it truly costs. I realize trying to pile on items quickly because the feet of those several customers behind us are furiously tapping doesn't allow much time to check the individual prices as they're passed on down the scanner line. One way to avoid the problem is to shop at stores that guarantee cash register accuracy. In the event of a mistake, you could earn anywhere from a couple of dollars to the outlay of your entire order. Check "price accuracy guarantees" online for stores that offer this policy.

Of course, everyone knows when talking with customer service and/or disputing any charge, make a note as to when you called, to whom you spoke and the disposition of the problem. Request a written confirmation, preferably by speedy email. If the predicament occurs again, don't hesitate to speak with a supervisor and as high up as you can get within the corporate office. Fight on!

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com.