The time after those holiday sales is ripe for credit and debit card problems. Maine regulators are urging consumers to be on guard against unauthorized charges and overcharges and even identity theft.
The advice to save your receipts and check your statements with an eagle eye is sound advice any time of year. Superintendent Will Lund of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection said there are a number of state and federal laws to protect consumers, but he said they must learn first to protect themselves.
“Generally, banks and credit unions must refund you for overcharges, unauthorized purchases or unauthorized debit withdrawals,” Lund said in a recent news release. However, the burden is on you to “notify the financial institution promptly and dispute the validity of the charge.”
We passed along Lund’s advice to a consumer from Down East Maine who placed an online order last month for a DVD set. Her account was debited and she received an e-mail the day she placed the order, noting that it was being shipped. When it didn’t arrive, there was no response to several of her e-mail inquiries, so she did some detective work.
The disputed amount on her bill was listed next to the name of a different business. She searched a couple of ways for the phone number listed next to that name. One result was an unpublished landline in Canada, the other a cell phone in the United States.
In this case, the sellers made it virtually impossible for complaints to reach them. Even when the seller can be found, many consumers make the mistake of complaining only to those at the point of sale. While a salesperson or even a supervisor may be sympathetic, complaining to them does not satisfy the requirements of the law.
Consumers with credit or debit card disputes must notify the issuing financial institution in writing as soon as possible after the discrepancy is discovered. A phone call may resolve the problem, but regulators and credit issuers alike remind consumers that a call alone does not preserve their rights.
Send a letter within 60 days after the company sent the first bill where the discrepancy occurred. Be sure to write to their dispute address, which is likely different from the billing address. A key phrase, such as “I am disputing this charge” will make it clear what the issue is.
Provide copies of as much documentation as you can. Remember, you are still responsible for paying those parts of your bill that are not in dispute. The issuing company will provisionally credit your account the disputed amount, then ask the merchant to prove that the charge was valid.
If you receive a collection letter or a letter about a debt that’s not yours, don’t assume it’s an isolated mistake. Check your credit report through the Web site approved by the Federal Trade Commission (www.AnnualCreditReport.com); it will let you choose one of the three companies that offer a free annual credit report. Print your report, look for accounts that aren’t yours, and dispute any fraudulent accounts with the reporting agency (which then must remove them from your report). If you suspect fraud, report it to your local police to start a paper trail.
If you’re a victim of consumer fraud or identity theft, contact the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 1-800-332-8529 (1-800-DEBT-LAW), or file a complaint via the Bureau’s Web site, www.Credit.Maine.gov.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.