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The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.)
Jan 14, 2002


Getting billed for a bill

Parked on my living room floor, pen and checkbook in hand, I was about to pay my bills when I spotted some eyebrow-raising items.

Apparently, if you're a big business providing a vital service, you can pass perplexing charges along to your customers. How else to explain the mountain of baffling fees heaped atop the already steep monthly bills I receive?

The gobbledygook is maddening. Most irksome is the "billing charge" some firms tack on. Also dubbed a "service charge" or "processing fee," it is, to me, "extra money I must cough up for the 'privilege' of being billed."

I'm not alone.

"Processing charges are nothing more than an effort to bill you for the cost of billing you - a cost which used to be calculated into the price of a product or service," the Foundation for Taxpayers & Consumer Rights has stated.

My water and sewer company doesn't even enclose a return envelope. All I get is a naked cardboard postcard. So not only am I forced to spring for envelopes; I also must pay $ 2 for a cardboard stub that cannot cost more than a few cents to manufacture.

Wondering about this nonsense, I called a couple of companies.

One surly customer service representative said the billing charge is "a flat processing fee" charged to all customers. Apparently, it doesn't cover the cost of hiring polite people to staff the phones and answer customer questions. Upon calling back, I was put on hold and assaulted by Muzak and water-conservation facts before being disconnected.

How do you folks sleep at night?

The other pests, who bill me each month, pile on various taxes, while my car insurance company demands a $ 2 "service charge."

A company veep explained it's an "installment charge" because I pay the "minimum balance due" every month rather than forking over the whole shebang annually in one fell swoop.

How rude of me!

Meanwhile, the phone company - whose motto should be "Reach Out and Confuse Everyone" - charges me a "federal universal service charge," an "FCC local number portability line charge," an "FCC charge for network access" and a fee for "telecommunications relay service."

Memo to phone company: Break it down into layman's terms!

I realize these all may very well be legitimate charges, but my minuscule brain cannot comprehend them. Even if they're all justifiable, that doesn't change the fact that a Mensa member with a master's degree from the Rorschach Institute of Inkblots and a Ph.D. in hieroglyphics couldn't decipher their meaning.

"Many bills are so complicated and inscrutable as to simulate a foreign language or a secret code," according to the Foundation for Taxpayers & Consumer Rights.

Aha. Just as I thought. This could explain why my cat always tries to bat the pen from my check-writing paw.

Apparently the mumbo jumbo isn't limited to utility companies: "One five-page hospital bill contained so many indecipherable items that it was incomprehensible even to a medical doctor also trained as a lawyer."

The foundation's Web site - - lists other billing boo boos, like this doozy: "Shortly after moving into a new office space, a Utah business received a utility bill for $ 15,000 in interest charges tabulated since 1906."

While I'm hip to the fact that we all make mistakes, that doesn't excuse the hideous practice of charging me to bill me. Just once, I'd like to respond by tacking a "disgruntled bill-payer's fee" onto my return correspondence and deducting that sum from the total charges.

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