Have you ever been billed for merchandise you returned or never received? Has your credit card company ever charged you twice for the same item or failed to credit a payment to your account?
You can sue any creditor who violates the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) — explained in detail in this article — and, yes, that includes credit card companies.
If you win, you may be awarded damages, plus twice the amount of any finance charge - as long as it's between $100 and $1,000. The court also may order the creditor to pay your attorney's fees and costs.
If possible, hire a lawyer who is willing to accept the amount awarded to you by the court as the entire fee for representing you. Some lawyers may not take your case unless you agree to pay their fee - win or lose - or add to the court-awarded amount if they think it's too low.
Sue Only as a Last Resort
While frustrating, these types of errors can often be corrected without having to resort to a lawsuit. It takes a little patience and knowledge of the dispute settlement procedures provided by the FCBA.
The law applies to "open end" credit accounts, such as credit cards, and revolving charge accounts - such as department store accounts. It does not cover installment contracts - loans or extensions of credit you repay on a fixed schedule. Consumers often buy cars, furniture and major appliances on an installment basis, and repay personal loans in installments as well.
What types of disputes are covered?
The FCBA settlement procedures apply only to disputes about "billing errors." For example:
To take advantage of the law's consumer protections, you must:
Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you have proof of what the creditor received. Include copies (not originals) of sales slips or other documents that support your position. Keep a copy of your dispute letter.
The creditor must acknowledge your complaint in writing within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The creditor must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after receiving your letter.
Name of Creditor
Dear Sir or Madam:
I am writing to dispute a billing error in the amount of $______on my account. The amount is inaccurate because (describe the problem). I am requesting that the error be corrected, that any finance and other charges related to the disputed amount be credited as well, and that I receive an accurate statement.
Enclosed are copies of (use this sentence to describe any enclosed information, such as sales slips, payment records) supporting my position. Please investigate this matter and correct the billing error as soon as possible.
What happens while my bill is in dispute?
You may withhold payment on the disputed amount (and related charges), during the investigation. You must pay any part of the bill not in question, including finance charges on the undisputed amount.
The creditor may not take any legal or other action to collect the disputed amount and related charges (including finance charges) during the investigation. While your account cannot be closed or restricted, the disputed amount may be applied against your credit limit.
Will my credit rating be affected?
The creditor may not threaten your credit rating or report you as delinquent while your bill is in dispute. However, the creditor may report that you are challenging your bill. In addition, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits creditors from discriminating against credit applicants who exercise their rights, in good faith, under the FCBA. Simply put, you cannot be denied credit simply because you've disputed a bill.
What if...the bill is incorrect?
If your bill contains an error, the creditor must explain to you - in writing - the corrections that will be made to your account. In addition to crediting your account, the creditor must remove all finance charges, late fees or other charges related to the error.
If the creditor determines that you owe a portion of the disputed amount, you must get a written explanation. You may request copies of documents proving you owe the money.
What if ...the bill is correct?
If the creditor's investigation determines the bill is correct, you must be told promptly and in writing how much you owe and why. You may ask for copies of relevant documents. At this point, you'll owe the disputed amount, plus any finance charges that accumulated while the amount was in dispute. You also may have to pay the minimum amount you missed paying because of the dispute.
If you disagree with the results of the investigation, you may write to the creditor, but you must act within 10 days after receiving the explanation, and you may indicate that you refuse to pay the disputed amount. At this point, the creditor may begin collection procedures. However, if the creditor reports you to a credit bureau as delinquent, the report also must state that you don't think you owe the money. The creditor must tell you who gets these reports.
What if...the creditor fails to follow the procedure?
Any creditor who fails to follow the settlement procedure may not collect the amount in dispute, or any related finance charges, up to $50, even if the bill turns out to be correct. For example, if a creditor acknowledges your complaint in 45 days - 15 days too late - or takes more than two billing cycles to resolve a dispute, the penalty applies. The penalty also applies if a creditor threatens to report - or improperly reports - your failure to pay to anyone during the dispute period.
An important caveat
Disputes about the quality of goods and services are not "billing errors," so the dispute procedure does not apply. However, if you buy unsatisfactory goods or services with a credit or charge card, you can take the same legal actions against the card issuer as you can take under state law against the seller.
To take advantage of this protection regarding the quality of goods or services, you must:
The dollar and distance limitations don't apply if the seller also is the card issuer - or if a special business relationship exists between the seller and the card issuer.
Other billing rights
Businesses that offer "open end" credit also must:
Reporting FCBA violations
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces the FCBA for most creditors except banks. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.