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Your rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act

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?

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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.

Avoid venting
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.


-- Updated: Oct. 6, 2005




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