credit cards

Gym contract slims down wallet

Don Taylorq_v2.gifDear Dr. Don,
I had signed up for six months of fitness training at my gym before my wedding. My credit card was billed every month, but then I noticed that it continued to be billed after the six months were over.

I called the company and was told that the fitness training contract automatically turned into a month-to-month plan and I would need to cancel in writing -- but they could not refund me for the three months I was charged for (but never received -- or wanted). I next tried going through my credit card company to have the charges taken off of my card -- which they did.

Now I have received a letter in the mail from a debt collection agency that the fitness company hired. They want to collect the money, plus over $100 for I don't know what. What should I do now?
-- Julie Gypped

a_v2.gifDear Julie,
Not to paint with too broad a brush, but the fitness industry appears to be full of these types of contracts and clients who have a difficult time getting them canceled. Called a negative option, it requires the client to cancel services -- typically in writing -- for the charges to stop.

I'd be surprised if the contract you signed for fitness training at your gym didn't contain language concerning the contract changing to a month-to-month contract at the end of the six-month period.

Your credit card provider sided with you and removed the charges from your credit card. The action by the card provider doesn't mean that the gym doesn't have a valid contract with you that it can try to enforce, in this case by hiring a collection agency.

It would be a good idea to review your credit reports to see if the account is being reported to these consumer reporting agencies. You can get a free copy of your credit report from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion once each year. You have the ability to dispute any information on the credit report you believe to be inaccurate. The FTC Facts for Consumers guide "How to Dispute Credit Report Errors" thoroughly explains the dispute process.

You can stop the collections agency from bothering you by contacting them in writing. After they have been notified, they can only contact you for specific reasons. Another FTC Facts for Consumers publication, "Debt Collection FAQs: A Guide for Consumers," explains that process.

Contacting the Better Business Bureau and filing a complaint against the company isn't likely to solve the problem, but it will put your complaint on record.

I'd like to see you settle this without waiting for the statute of limitations to kick in, and before it negatively impacts your credit score. It's possible you'll need to hire an attorney to review the contract and assess your case. You didn't talk about the money involved, but my attorney gets $300 an hour. You get to do the cost/benefit analysis on that decision.

To ask a question of Dr. Don, go to the "Ask the Experts" page, and select one of these topics: "Financing a home," "Saving & investing" or "Money." Read more Dr. Don columns for additional personal finance advice.

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