How to Dispute Credit Card Charges and Other Billing Errors

Use these tips and tricks to fight costly billing mistakes.

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Chances are, you don't stop to study sales receipts or read bills thoroughly before paying them. Hey, you're busy! But the people who prepare your bills are busy, too, and they can make mistakes. Case in point: Up to 40 percent of medical bills may contain errors, according to Stephen Parente, a professor of health finance at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. That's why it's worth taking a few valuable seconds to scan your bills. Here's the scoop.

Medical Bills

The error: Excessive fees for visits or procedures; incorrect billing codes.

How to spot it: Once you receive the Explanation of Benefits (EoB) from your health insurer, call the billing department of your doctor or hospital to request a detailed, itemized receipt. This receipt should match your EoB; make sure that it lists the correct procedure, with no double billing. If a fee seems surprisingly high, go to FairHealthConsumer.org, a database that provides cost estimates for medical services. A big discrepancy between your bill and the estimate could mean that you are being overcharged.

How to fight it: First address questionable charges with the billing department and your insurer. Tell them, "This bill is not what I expected to pay for this service, and I hope you can help me look more closely at the details," suggests Erin Moaratty, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Patient Advocate Foundation, in Hampton, Virginia. If the representative can't address your concerns, ask to speak with a supervisor. For a very steep bill, consider hiring a medical advocate, who will contest the charges (find one at billadvocates.com). Just bear in mind that you'll probably have to pay the advocate $50 to $150 an hour or a percentage of your savings; the cost can quickly add up.

Retail Bills

The error: Overcharging for products.

How to spot it: Pay attention as the cashier scans your items, in case she inadvertently charges twice for the same thing. Also, check the printed receipt for electronic mistakes. Advertised discounts, for instance, aren't always programmed into the scanner.

How to fight it: "Say to the cashier, 'I hope you can help me with a small mistake,' " says Patricia Rossi, the author of Everyday Etiquette ($15, amazon.com). If she doesn't look eager to assist you, "blame the technology," says Rossi. "Suggesting that the computer made an error sounds less confrontational." Just don't wait until you get home to check the receipt, since the problem will be harder to resolve over the phone.

Cell-Phone Bills

The error: Unauthorized third-party charges.

How to spot it: If you enter your cell number in an online contest or accidentally reply to a spam text, you could unwittingly subscribe to a third-party service that provides, say, daily horoscopes. If this happens, a fee will appear on your bill, often with a vague label like "premium services" or "premium messaging."

How to fight it: If a suspicious charge appears on your bill, ask the phone company for more information about it, then ask to remove it, says Malini Mithal, the assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Financial Practices. You can also talk to your carrier about blocking all third-party charges in the future. Customers of major carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, can forward suspicious texts (like an ad for diet tips) to the carriers at 7726 (SPAM).

Credit-Card and Debit-Card Bills

The error: Unauthorized charges.

How to spot it: Scan your bill for unfamiliar company names or charges. If you see something unusual (and haven't lost your card), a thief may have gotten your number via a computer virus known as malware. Or you may be a victim of "skimming"—which happens when someone illicitly makes a copy of your card info, says Jessica Patel, a personal-finance analyst at the information site Bankrate.com.

How to fight it: Monitor your credit-card and bank-account activity once a week. If you find unauthorized charges, contact your financial institution right away. With debit cards, as long as you haven't lost your card, you have 60 days from the statement date to report the charges with no liability. With a credit card, you're protected no matter when you report fraudulent use, and the credit-card company cannot hold you responsible for more than $50. For billing problems such as a dispute with a retailer, you must alert the company within 60 days of the statement date.