"Are You Giving Money Away?"
By Capt. Fred Davis
Published: Friday, December 9, 2011

Are you giving money away? If the answer is yes, please send it to Capt. Fred in care of the Huron Daily Tribune. If your answer is no, how sure are you about that answer? Unless you are absolutely positive, you better read this column.

You will be surprised to learn you may be spending your hard earned dollars by duplicate payment of bills and charges not even yours. Because many major companies send such confusing statements, many of us pay more than we owe. If we do, does the billing company ever give it back or credit our account? Perhaps they should send us a thank you note when we overpay or pay in advance.

My reference is not to an accidental overcharge, even big companies can and do make an occasional data error. What I object to is the deliberate, constant changing of billing formats and the confusing presentation of billing amounts. It seems obvious there is an assumption we all just automatically pay our bills by looking at the bottom line. In fact, many of us actually do “auto” pay by way of “ach” withdrawals from our accounts, believing it’s an efficient way to never miss a payment.

We have set up auto pay for a number of bills that arrive each month, utilities, fuel bills, insurance and medical bills. It is very convenient for us because we travel so frequently and do not wish to miss a payment (especially with the “stiff” penalties that can be imposed). Most companies that agree to accept “ach” payments still send a billing statement showing the amount owed and the date an automatic payment will be withdrawn. Sometimes the statements get delayed, due to forwarded mail or the gremlins in the computers, and withdrawals are made without our knowing what the payment amount was. When this happens, unless we stick extra money in our accounts, we are overdrawn and that means paying a fee for insufficient funds (another “stiff” penalty).

So, even though the auto pay is very convenient, you can lose control of your payments and your bank account very easily unless you stay aware of each and every one of them. I suggest all statements you receive be reviewed each month as soon as they arrive. Besides knowing when the payment is due, you may be surprised by what you are being billed for that seems unrelated to the service you are paying for.

One of my favorites is the phone bill. In the list of charges, I found residential line charge and two federal surcharges, universal service fee, subscriber line charge, followed by a total of surcharges and other fees. The next category of charges noted government fees and taxes, federal excise tax, two state taxes and local tax. As I reviewed my bill, I wondered what difference there was between “surcharges and other fees” and “government fees and taxes.”

As I continued to peruse my bill, I saw a $17 fee for “information and connection.” When I later questioned this amount I learned it was added by an “outside company.” When I explained I had never used that company, I was simply told the charge would be removed. I wondered who would have received that money and why the charge landed on my bill in the first place. If I had not looked closely at my bill, the bottom line “amount due” would have been paid.

Another favorite statement of mine, which fortunately only comes once a year, is for my Sirius Satellite Radio system in my car. Usually two or three billings arrive — all different — and then someone calls to inquire if you got your bill. The latest one I received (after I had paid an earlier one) had two columns.

The first was labeled:


Previous Balance $203.72

Sirius Service - 76.96

Radio Service fees 8.32

Current Charges

Subtotal - 68.64

Invoice fee 2.00

Total Amount Due $137.08

The second column was titled:


Sirius Select 1 year $77.00

U.S. Music Royalty Fee 8.32

Previous Subscription Credit - 153.96

Total Current Charges $ - 68.64

My previous balance less current charge credit plus the invoice fee totaled the amount due of $ 137.08, but what happened to my $ 153.96 previous credit? None of the figures displayed on the above statement noted the payment I had already made on my bill.

I did find a “Listener Care” phone number on the statement and when I made the call, can you believe it, I reached an operator in Southeast Asia. I asked for someone in accounting and the operator told me she was in accounting and asked how she could help me. I began to question the odd variables on my statement and when she found a copy of my statement in her “system” her numbers were different than mine. After I spent 15 minutes during which she kept insisting I was wrong about what I was seeing on the printed page, she grew weary of me.

She told me, “I will have someone in accounting contact you in the next five to 10 (or maybe a 100) business days.”

I believe that was what I asked for when she answered my call. Note: I could not make this up — it really went just as I explained.

It truly is almost impossible to talk to someone on this side of the world when you call many companies – “The world is flat.” I have discovered something of value, however, after my recent encounter with Sirius – why their stock value goes up one day and plunges the next.

The last statement I will tell you about came from my Florida electric co-op. I have paid a flat fee of $11 a month as a “vacation rate” for years. As I reviewed the bill, I noted the $11 charge had jumped to $24, and when I inquired I was told the increase was necessary to reduce the burden on the year-round customers.

And the list goes on, just today’s mail brought a message about a special “tort” fee on my auto insurance and a very IMPORTANT notice from my BlueCross insurance company about a NEW MICHIGAN LAW that allows them to “assess” my bill an additional 1.35 percent to – get this — “comply with the objective to fund this tax.”

I could relate the new charges appearing on the cable bill such as “Convenience fee – agent” leading the long list. Medical bills arrive that show Medicare paid only a portion of the bill and a balance is due, even though my secondary insurance was billed and would pay. How many people pay that balance due, believing they owe it?

As I see it, why not pay yourself this month when the bills arrive by reviewing your statements and NOT paying charges you do not owe.




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