Customer Fights $1.60 Error And Wins

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It was just one in a pile of monthly bills, and the amount in question was only $1.60, which would hardly send anyone into bankruptcy court.

What launched Richard Reese into action was the principle of the thing.

And after a lot of time, effort and telephone calls, principle won out over a billing error by Payson's cable television provider, CableVision.

Of course, Reese is not the only person in the world who's ever been the victim of a billing error, and CableVision is far from the only company that's committed one. But the story of Richard Reese vs. CableVision shows just how far one fed-up customer can take such a battle, and win, armed with grit and determination.

In mid-February, Reese received a CableVision invoice for $33.50, which reflected an increase of $1.60 over his previous bill.

Reese didn't get truly motivated to raise cain until he learned that CableVision's owner is the News Press & Gazette in St. Joseph, Mo.

"This is a private, investor-owned company, taking advantage of the old economic theory of supply and demand, charging whatever the traffic will bear," Reese says. "Unless consumers resist, costs will continue to rise for local cable service."

So Reese phoned the CableVision customer service number which appeared on his invoice to question the increase. The call, Reese says, was taken by "Ken" who explained that the increase in subscriber cost was a "government charge" over which CableVision had no control.

Reese calls that a "ridiculous suggestion," since CableVision does not need to pass such charges along to its customers; that the company can absorb it as a cost of doing business.

"It was a business decision," says Reese, a construction consultant, "and they decided to have their customers pay for it."

Reese says he was next referred to "Ken's" supervisor, "Cindy," of whom he requested the telephone number of CableVision's Payson office.

At first, "Cindy" said she "couldn't give that out," Reese says. "But she finally admitted (that she) would not give the number to me."

At the point where most folks would likely throw their hands in the air and give up, Reese went to CableVision's Payson office. There, he says, a company employee named "Madelyn" listened to Reese's tale of woe, made note of his account number, and promised that a credit would be reflected on his next statement due to CableVision's "overcharging (its) franchise fee."

The credit did indeed appear on Reese's subsequent CableVision bill ... along with this notation, directly below a new 68-cent charge for a monthly rental franchise fee:

"We're sorry. Franchise fees were billed incorrectly in February. This will be corrected on the March invoice, and customers affected will receive a credit on the April statement. Thanks."

Still, the only way Reese could settle the matter on his own was to contact a CableVision employee, live and in person ... which is no longer possible. When the Roundup called the company's local office, its telephone line had been disconnected and all calls were referred to a toll-free Valley number.

A call to a Qwest information operator turned up an additional Payson telephone number for CableVision. A fax number. Richard Reese could not accomplish today what he accomplished two months ago.

But even so, Reese will not stop paying a portion of CableVision's franchise fee.

"In a nutshell, our new billing software vendor in our February billing put in the wrong percentage for franchise fees," said CableVision's director of marketing, David Von Dolteren. As to the decision to have their customers pay that fee, Dolteren said "I know of no cable operator that doesn't pass that along."

Protecting against billing abuse

Many consumers simply ignore billing problems, thinking it's not worth the bother making phone calls and writing letters to try to rectify the difficulty. That's a bad idea, according to the Internet information database run by Consumer Watchdog (consumerwatchdog.org).

While honest and reputable companies want to know about billing problems and to keep their customers satisfied, other less virtuous companies rely on the inconvenience to deter customers from complaining and continue the abuse as long as they can get away with it.

The best solution is to be a smart and savvy bill-payer and you can start your journey on that road by following Consumer Watchdog's step-by-step process to resolve billing disputes:

1. Read what the bill says you should do in case of error. Once you've found a billing problem or even if you simply don't understand the bill call the company. Why? Because when you speak to a company employee, you are in effect investing him or her with personal responsibility for resolving your problem. It's a psychological factor that helps ensure you'll get immediate individual attention.

2. When you call, explain that you have a billing problem and ask to speak to the person who can resolve it. Once you're talking to the right person, give the date of the bill, explain the problem in detail and ask for an explanation of the charges. If your bill contains overcharges or phony charges including undisclosed bogus charges for "bill processing" demand that they be eliminated from the bill, along with any interest charges or penalty fees. Ascertain from the person the correct amount you owe, and agree you'll pay that amount. Make sure you write down the names of each person you speak with, and what they say.

4. Never accept poor performance or rude behavior from the person you are speaking with, no matter who he or she is. If you have trouble with the person you speak to, ask politely to speak with their supervisor.

Make sure you explain to the superior you asked to speak with them, and indicate your displeasure at the poor performance of the person you spoke with before. Let them know you intend to do everything necessary to resolve the problem and expect the same from them.

Finally, note that supervisors have superiors, too. If you have to, work your way right to the top. 5. Once you've rectified the problem, pay the bill. Even if you're sure you've taken care of the mistake, it's always advisable to note in writing either on the bill or in a separate letter the mistake, and who you talked to at the company.

6. What if the company won't fix your problem? You can refuse to pay, which could harm your credit rating or cause the company to sue you; you can sue the company; or you can seek other help.

In many cases, government agencies can assist you with a dispute, and many states and large cities have consumer protection departments. Some non-profit public interest organizations will assist consumers, and state bar associations frequently offer legal assistance to those who cannot otherwise obtain or afford it.

Finally, where fraud or other criminal activity is involved, contact the local police, district attorney, state attorney general's office, and the U.S. Postal Service, if the mail is involved.

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