You Owe Yourself to Look Out for Billing Errors
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The Washington Post
Jul 08, 2001

by Michelle Singletary

You Owe Yourself to Look Out for Billing Errors

I've got the bogus-billing blues.

You get them after spending a few hours, days or even months punching your way through electronic voice-mail systems just so you can talk to a real human to say you've been double-billed or charged incorrectly.

Is it me, or does this seem to happen far too often these days?

Recently, I had to straighten out billing errors with a hospital and argue over a double-billing on my credit card.

First came the hospital bill, which caused me great pain. After the birth of my last child, I kept receiving statements from the hospital showing that I owed it $ 3,000. Yet those bills also said I should ignore the charge because it was also submitted to my insurance company.

This went on for 10 months -- until the day I received a letter from a collection agency promising to ruin my credit if I didn't pay the bill immediately.

I got on the telephone right away.

It took a dozen telephone calls to clear the matter up. My insurance company had indeed paid my bill. Everyone was sorry. I was exasperated.

A few weeks later, I received another statement from the hospital -- this time for $ 10. After all I had gone through, I decided not to quibble over such a small amount. I sat down to write a check.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to call the hospital before I mailed the check.

"My computer is showing that you owe a $ 10 co-payment," the billing woman said.

"I don't think so," I said as politely as I could, even though I wanted to wring somebody's neck. "Miss, isn't it hospital policy that the doctor can't see a patient unless the co-payment is paid at the time of the appointment?"

"Um, I guess that is true," the billing woman replied.

She put me on hold. A few minutes later she came back on the line and said I was right and I should ignore the bill.

"Been there. Done that," I said. I asked for her name. I made a note of the day and time of the call on the bill and filed it away -- just in case.

But my billing blues weren't over. Next I had to clear up a double-billing for a hotel charge on my credit card.

I'm planning to attend a convention later this summer. The hotel where I'm staying required that I prepay the first night of my stay, which ticked me off, but that's another column. Anyway, I put the charge on my credit card. The bill came. I paid it. When my next credit card statement came it showed that the hotel had charged my card again. It took only three telephone calls to fix that billing error.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights ( has compiled a list of the major types of billing problems and how to detect them:

  • Unitemized bills. These are one-page bills that usually contain just a total amount due. These types of bills make it difficult to determine the accuracy of charges. When you get a bill, ask yourself: Is the price of each product or service ordered listed individually so I can identify it?

  • Indecipherable bills. Many statements make it impossible to determine whether the charge was calculated correctly. Ask yourself when reading a bill: Do I understand how they calculated the charge in question? If you don't, try to find out.

  • Overcharges. Often bills can contain inflated charges for legitimate products and services you received. Many people forget to look at their bills carefully, particularly ones with numerous charges. When paying a bill, make a point of checking the bill against the price you agreed to pay. Also compare the charge with any receipts you received at the time of purchase.

  • Phony charges. Some companies send out materials that look and read like bills but are actually solicitations. Don't be fooled by letters asking you to pay for items you haven't ordered yet, or that suggest your "account will lapse" if you don't pay right away. Many mail-order scams involve billing for products or services not ordered.

  • Interest on billing mistakes. Whenever you catch a billing mistake, always check on subsequent bills to make sure you're not being charged interest or other penalties for not paying an erroneous charge.

I'm sure that most companies don't mean to torment us with billing mistakes. Nonetheless, I suggest that you become dogmatic about going over every bill to make sure you don't pay a penny more than you should.

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