Your rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act
By Lucy Lazarony • Bankrate.com
Ever get a credit card statement and find an error? The amount is wrong, or you never received the product you've been billed for?
Well, you can fight the improper charge. And the law is on your side.
What gives you the right to fight rather than pay? The Fair Credit Billing Act.
To be protected under this federal law, you'll need to follow a few key rules.
Let's start by taking a closer look at billing errors and how the Fair Credit Billing Act gives you the power to fight back.
Billing errors defined
The law defines a wide gamut of card problems as "billing errors." These include a charge for something you didn't buy, a charge with the wrong date or amount and a charge for a good or service that you didn't receive or accept.
Also considered "billing errors" are math mistakes, the failure of an issuer to credit a payment or return, and the failure of an issuer to send a bill to your current address once you've given notice of your move.
Finally, any charge on your bill that you want explained or you don't recognize can be treated as a "billing error" under the Fair Credit Billing Act.
Put it in writing ASAP
To be protected under this law, you'll need to dispute any errors you find on your card bill in writing. So, important rule number one is put your complaint in writing and then in the mail.
"Faxing a letter will not protect you. E-mail will not protect you. Talking to people on the phone won't protect you," says Howard Strong, author of "What Every Credit Card User Needs to Know." "The best thing is to send a letter."
And you'll need to mail your dispute letter fairly quickly. The deadline for notifying your credit card company of a billing error is 60 days from the date the bill was mailed to you.
That's important rule No. 2: Make your written complaint within the 60-day deadline.
Keep in mind that the 60-day clock starts ticking on the day your issuer mails your billing statement, not the date you receive it. So by the time you receive your bill, you actually have 50-odd days to get a dispute letter back to your card issuer.
If the envelope of a card bill doesn't have a postmark, you can call your issuer and ask when your bill was sent out. Or you can follow the advice of Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook," and use the cut-off date on your card bill as a guideline for the 60-day rule. The cut-off date is the date your last billing cycle closed.
According to the law, your dispute letter must include your name, address, account number and a description of the problem. This is important rule No. 3.
And there's no need to go on and on in a dispute letter to a credit card issuer. Keep it simple and keep a copy for your records.
"Describe the problem as succinctly as possible, as clearly as possible," Detweiler says. "If you have any documentation to back it up, include that."
Let's say your card company didn't give you credit for a return. If you have your return receipt, make a copy of the receipt and mail it with your dispute letter. Hang on to the original receipt for your records.
Not sure what to put in your dispute letter? Check out these guidelines and a sample letter from Bankrate.com.
Be sure to send your dispute letter to the address for "Billing Inquiries," which is listed on the back of your card bill. This is important rule number four.
If you send your dispute letter to the address for payments, there's a good chance it will get lost or thrown out. Plus, if you send your dispute letter to the wrong address, you won't be protected under the law.
"The Fair Credit Billing Act is very specific. You do have to send it to the proper address," Detweiler says.
Your rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act -- page 2
By Lucy Lazarony • Bankrate.com
Rule #1 -- Dispute a billing mistake in writing.
Rule #2 -- Send your dispute letter to the issuer within 60 days.
Rule #3 -- Include your name, address, account number and a description of the error in your dispute letter.
Rule #4 -- Mail your dispute letter to the address for "Billing Inquiries."
Once you've taken these steps you can sit back and let the law work for you.
Once a credit card issuer receives your dispute letter, it is required to act on it. Thanks to the Fair Credit Billing Act, it can't brush you off.
"It forces the credit card company to investigate and look into it," says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. "Before the Fair Credit Billing Act, the credit card company could ignore you."
Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, which was passed in 1974, your card company is required to investigate and either correct the mistake or explain why the bill is correct. Your issuer must do this within two billing cycles and take no longer than 90 days. Your issuer must also acknowledge your complaint in writing within 30 days.
Even though the law says an issuer must respond promptly to a dispute letter, some issuers may need a little nudge.
Send it certified
"A lot of companies have the position -- we didn't get your letter -- whether they received it or not," Strong says.
That's why it's a good idea to send a dispute letter via certified mail, return receipt requested. That way you'll have proof that your credit card issuer received your letter within the 60-day time period.
While the matter is under investigation, your card company may not take any action to collect the disputed amount and you're allowed to withhold payment on the disputed charge.
Will disputing a credit card charge hurt your credit? Nope. Once a card company receives your written dispute, it cannot give out information to other creditors or to the credit bureaus that would hurt your credit rating until the matter is resolved.
Once a credit card issuer has completed its investigation, it must send you its findings in writing.
If a card issuer decides the disputed charge is, in fact, an error, your account will be credited accordingly. Any finance charges or late fees related to the disputed charge will be removed from your account.
If a card issuer decides a disputed charge is correct, you must be given at least 10 days to pay the charge or to re-assert your dispute in writing. Be aware that once you re-assert your dispute and continue to withhold payment, an issuer may take aim at your credit report. An issuer may report your account as delinquent as long as the report also states that you believe that you don't owe the money.
The Fair Credit Billing Act also gives you the right to withhold payment on poor-quality or damaged merchandise purchased with a credit card.
Under the law, you do need to make a real effort at resolving the dispute with a merchant before you can ask your issuer to stop a credit card payment.
"Simply contact the merchant and try to work it out," Detweiler says. "Keep notes of what you did."
There's no need to contact an issuer in writing. You can call or visit the store if you want. The law simply requires that you make "a good faith attempt" to resolve the problem with the merchant. Be sure to keep a record of what was said for your records.
There are a couple of other rules to consider.
To be protected under the law, the credit card sale must be for more than $50 and have taken place in your home state or within 100 miles of your home address.
Luckily for consumers, not all issuers enforce the $50 or 100-mile rule on purchases made in the United States. Plus, these dollar and distance rules don't apply if the seller is also the card issuer, such as when you make a purchase in a department store with a department store card.
If you're unhappy with the quality of a credit card purchase and the merchant won't help, then try your card issuer. You can hit back at the merchant by halting your payment as long as you follow these rules.
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