How to resolve credit
Letter of the law requires letters
If you have a beef with your credit card issuer,
angry letters to the bank president and nasty calls to customer
service reps might be cathartic, but they will get you nowhere.
Overcharges, indecipherable bills, calculation
errors and a bevy of other account problems cause cardholder angst
every day. But with a little finesse, the right documents, a basic
understanding of consumer rights and dispute procedures -- as well
as a lot of patience -- you can prevail over Big Bank.
If the billing dispute is with a merchant, attempt to solve the
problem with them first. If you are not satisfied, get your credit
card company involved.
Before you take issue with a card company, though,
there is one cardinal rule that bears repeating like a mantra: Paper
Some people think billing problems can be resolved
through phone calls, faxes or e-mails. But only by addressing the
matter in writing are consumers guaranteed protection under the
Credit Billing Act, the federal law that outlines procedures
for billing disputes.
"The only sure way to protect your rights is
a paper record," says Howard Strong, author of What
Every Credit Card User Needs To Know: How To Protect Yourself and
Your Money. "Ten phone calls will not
do it. You need a letter to trigger the protective mechanisms of
Your first letter of response to a billing error
is the foundation of the fight, so you have to make sure you get
true: Honey beats vinegar
A mistake some consumers make when they receive an erroneous
bill is to hastily contact the creditor when they are upset. Complaining
is an art, and your demeanor can help or hurt your case.
"Being nasty, rude or impolite to the person
you are asking to help you may seriously hinder your reaching any
solution," says Strong.
A lawyer who has been doing battle on behalf
of cardholders for nearly 25 years, Strong suggests sweetening
"Using phrases such as 'I have a problem and
I need your help,' or 'We have a problem' makes the person you want
to help you your ally," he says.
your way uphill
It's important also to follow the chain of command. There's
always time later to write the bank president if you don't get satisfaction
on the ground floor.
"If you start at the bottom, you might get your
problem solved there. If you don't, you can move up the line and
have more opportunities to get what you want," says Strong.
Honey and corporate etiquette won't help, though,
if you don't write your credit card company within 60 days after
the faulty bill was sent to you. It's critical that card customers
meet the deadline required by the Fair Credit Billing Act.
"If you don't get that letter off before the
period for making objections is over, you're going to be fighting
two battles instead of one," warns Robert Green, an attorney with
the National Association for Consumer Advocates.
Be sure the letter is typewritten. Include your
name, address, account number, a brief description of the problem,
and copies -- not originals -- of sales slips or other documents
that support your position.
"Limit the information in the letter to the
really important facts," says Green. "Keep it to a page."
To add a little clout, he suggests sending a
copy to one of the federal agencies that regulates banks and other
financial institutions, such as the Comptroller
of the Currency or the Federal
"It looks good and it's something the banks
are worried about," says Green.
Make sure you keep a copy of the letter for
yourself, then send the original missive by certified mail with
a return receipt. "It costs more money and a trip to the post office,
but it's well worth it to have verification of delivery," says Strong.
cheap alternative to certified mail
A cheaper, easier way to verify receipt -- but one that's not
as reliable as certified mail -- is to send a check as payment on
your account, along with your dispute letter. Note on the bottom
of the check that it was enclosed with a letter to the billing department.
There is one caveat, though. "If the creditor
never cashes your check, you have no proof it got your letter,"
Because the paper trail is the key to your complaint,
credit card customers might want to weigh the worth of calling the
800 line on the back of their bill if they've got a messy problem.
Unbeknownst to many consumers, that number does
not link them to their credit card issuer. Most banks, even small
ones and credit unions, hire companies to field incoming calls from
their card customers.
Unless you can reach a supervisor who has access
to more account information than an entry-level customer service
agent, it can be hard to get help.
Debbie Brooks, vice president of Credit Card
Management Services, a West Palm Beach, Fla., company that assists
people with card debts, makes frequent calls to the toll-free phone
banks for her clients.
"I always ask for a supervisor right off so
I don't have to tell my story three or four times," she says. "But
the wait times can be unbelievable."
Brooks says the biggest problem is not being
able to obtain the information you need. "The service reps call
up what they can on a computer screen and if it's not right in front
of them they can't help you. It's more of a 'what can I do for you
right now' situation."
If you do make calls to the customer service line, keep a log.
Write down the date and time you called, the employee's name, title
and what they told you. File it with your other paperwork for that
After a phone call, write a letter confirming
"Always follow up a phone call with a letter,"
says Nancy Nauser, president of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service
of Greater Kansas City and Mid-Missouri. "You truly must communicate
very clearly with creditors because things fall through the cracks."
Once you've done your part, the burden of proof
lies with the creditor, who has 30 days to acknowledge your complaint
in writing, unless the problem has been resolved. If not, they have
two billing cycles, or no more than 90 days, to investigate and
tell you their findings.
"At this point in the procedure, the card company
usually will have fixed most errors," says Strong.
If not, it's time to write that letter to the
bank president, the franchising organization -- such as Visa
-- or federal regulators.
"Keep going up the chain of command until you
get satisfaction," says Nauser. "It gets harder, but you need to
Nov. 20, 2002