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Fighting with your credit card company?

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.

"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 (Henry Holt and Co., 1999). "Ten phone calls will not do it. You need a letter to trigger the protective mechanisms of the law."

Be nice
Your first letter of response to a billing error is the foundation of the fight, so you have to make sure you get it right. 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. 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.

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.

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Here are 5 effective credit card company counter-punches:

1. Keep documents from credit card companies.
Six years is the recommended time because account records are valuable at tax time. The most important documents are the ones that lay out the rules and the ones that you're disputing. So keep the disclosure statement you get when your card first comes in the mail and the fine-print documents that amend it. They're your contract with the credit issuer. In a dispute? You need the bill that contains the disputed item and the postmarked envelope in which it arrived.

2. Keep charge receipts and compare them with each credit card bill.
"You need to be very timely in evaluating and reviewing your accounts," says Nancy Nauser, of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Kansas City and Mid-Missouri.

3. Read the fine print.
"Even though it is incredibly dense and long and difficult to follow, people need to make a hard effort to read that," says Paul Bland, a lawyer with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. "Most consumers are unaware of it, but courts hold them to the fine print unless it is incredibly unfair."

4. Don't do business with card companies that take away your right to sue them.
This clause, which you will find in the fine print, is called an arbitration provision. "Arbitration provisions are not in consumers' best interests," says Robert Green, a lawyer with the National Association for Consumer Advocates.

5. If your dispute is with the merchant, tell the card company to stop payment on that bill.
It's similar to stopping payment on a check because you were unhappy with the product or service. The fight is between you and the vendor. Check the
Truth in Lending Act, though, because there are restrictions.

-- Updated: July 29, 2004


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See Also
How to resolve a credit card dispute
A sample complaint letter
Find the right card for your lifestyle
More credit card stories


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