How to Dispute Unreasonable Charges on Your Bills

by David Ning · 21 comments

After some frustration, several phone calls and a long time listening to more commercials while being on hold, I managed to get the erroneous $175 termination fee on my AT&T phone bill waived. Here’s how I did it.

What Happened to My Bill

Many cell phone companies ask for a commitment in exchange for free phones (or cash rebates). Some are 1 year contracts, while others are multi-year ones. I signed up for a 2 year contract a few years ago, which I do regularly as I switch from carrier to carrier to take advantage of all the cash rebates that many companies offer. For a long time, everything was fine and dandy.

Several weeks ago, I switched my cell phone provider to take advantage of a $350 cash rebate. To make sure that my contract was up, I called AT&T and was told that my contract was up. I then went ahead to cancel my service and switched over.

While I was away on my trip a few days later, my wife receives an AT&T bill and to her surprise, there was a $175 of termination fee. She tried to call AT&T but they just wouldn’t listen. Over and over, all she heard was:

We’re sorry. Since your contract isn’t up until July, 2009, there is nothing we can do

What I Did to Get My Money Back

I fully understand that contracts needs to be honored, but when I called beforehand and was told that my contract is up, I expect the information to be correct.

I called again, and after talking to first representative, she echoed the same thing, and also told me that I signed my contract last year (which wasn’t true). When I asked to speak to the manager, she got upset and tried to say no but when I asked again, she put me on hold for a while, then picked up the phone again and just hung up.

I called again of course. This time, someone more reasonable came on. I explained my situation, and mentioned that if someone told me the contract was up in July, it wouldn’t make sense for me to even cancel two months beforehand because the monthly charges wouldn’t even be $175. The representative agreed, but said he couldn’t do anything. He suggested to be transferred to the manager, and then I explained everything all over again. She checked into the system for call records and notes other representatives made, and told me that yes, it was their error and they will credit me.

What I Learned and How You Can Dispute Errors on Your Bills

Of course, if you made a mistake and was charged a fee, there is nothing you can do. However, when there are legitimate reasons why there’s something on the bill that shouldn’t be on there, here are some tips that might help save you money.

  • Persistence Pays Off – Before you even call, you need to figure out whether your request is reasonable. If it is, then don’t take no for an answer. If we just gave up after my wife called, we would be $175 short. If I gave up after I called the first time, we would still have to pay $175. When reason is on your side, don’t be afraid to explain it again and again.
  • Always Log Your Calls – One thing we haven’t done is write down when we called, as well as the person’s name on the other end. If AT&T didn’t have logs of when I first called to ask about my contract several weeks ago, I doubt they will believe me when I told them that I was given erroneous information that led to the charge.
  • Be Calm but Assertive – Most of the time when we are calling customer support, we are upset about the service. However, remember that the people on the other side of the line is here to help you.  Without him/her, you will get no where.
  • Don’t be Discouraged by Bad Reps – When the first representative hung up on me, I was ready to write the whole company off. I couldn’t believe that AT&T representatives would tell me my contract was up when it wasn’t. Then charge me a termination fee, then get upset when I ask to speak to a manager and hang up on me. After I calmed down, I realized that just like every other company, there are good and bad employees. Just because one representative is unreasonable doesn’t mean everyone will be. I then called again and luckily, the person I spoke with next was much more reasonable and logical.
  • Be Reasonable – I’ve said this a few times and I will say it again. The reason why you are calling must be logical. If you screwed up, then don’t call trying to get your money back. However, if your request is reasonable, then you have every right to not be charged. It can be done as I’ve shown. Good luck.
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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

The Weakonomist May 20, 2009 at 6:33 am

This also brings up the question of prorated term fees. If your contract were to be up in July, the fee should have bee prorated to sya, $30.

I’ve had my fair share of bad experinces with AT&T customer service, however I haven’t yet had a problem that wasn’t resolved.

I think CS reps are trained to discourage you so you give up. I’ll bet it works more times than not, it’s a twisted system.

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MoneyNing May 20, 2009 at 6:46 am

The fees being prorated is definitely more “fair” but if the contract doesn’t say so to start out with, I’m fine with not having it. Having said that though, it would’ve been a good compromise and one I would’ve taken if the manager told me this after I got misled by the first customer rep.

It’s one thing to discourage me but it’s another to hang up on me. I am guessing that they have performances based on that and she was just selfish. It definitely didn’t help AT&T’s image by doing what she did. However like I said though, every company’s got bad employees, especially big corporations who employ so many.

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Amanda May 20, 2009 at 6:45 am

I just went through a similar experience with T-mobile. I need to return a phone and was told there would be no charges but I received a bill. I was able to get the charges taken off too but what I learned from the experience is that when you talk to a service rep they make notes. Just ask them to note exactly what they told you. Because even if you have their name and the date you called you still have not proof of what they said. This way when then next rep brings up your account it is right there the date and what they said to you.

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Money Beagle May 20, 2009 at 6:56 am

I’ve actually had pretty good luck with Sprint customer service. Before my wife and I got married, we went into a Sprint store to move her from my in-laws plan over to mine. This required some major changes which they unfortunately got wrong. I got a bill for about $350 when it should have been $80. I called up and they went back and noted the errors and made the corrections on the spot. I’ve had a couple of other minor things happen, and also called in to get some promotions that saved nearly $150 at our last renewal, and they all went off without a hitch. Keeping my fingers crossed that the good customer service experiences continue.

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MoneyNing May 20, 2009 at 9:53 am

It’s glad to hear about good customer support experiences since they are so hard to come by. I wish companies would learn that they actually lose customers if people have bad experiences over the phone.

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George May 20, 2009 at 7:06 am

That’s funny. The exact same thing happened for me. Multi-year contracts and customer disservice are the basic tools of cell phone companies. Every time I would call, they would play the same 3 advertisements over and over and over. I spent hours listening to the stupid advertising, just to clear up a mistake that they made. It may not be illegal, but it sure pisses people off.

Another thing to keep in mind is that multi-year contracts are a rip off. They sound like a good deal, but they are not. Consider this: if you plan to spend $100 per month for service, that is $2,400 for 2 years. Taxes, fees, overages and “mistaken” charges are about 40% more. So that makes $3,360 for using a phone for 2 years.

The solution? A prepaid phone or a company that does not treat its customers with contempt. http://www.virginmobileusa.com/

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amaranta May 20, 2009 at 7:23 am

also, the CS reps usually have an extension or representative #, so I always ask for that as well.

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CD Rates May 20, 2009 at 7:36 am

Did you file a complaint against the bad rep? As long as someone is being reasonable, there is no reason to be treated that way.

Sometimes the charges are much smaller. And I think the companies almost count on you not wanting to bother with a small charge. For them, lots of small charges add up.

One time we dealt for months over a $47 charge. At one point, I would have almost paid it, but then they sent me to collections. It took a while, but we eventually one.

The medical system is another place where charges are often wrong. I am also calm and collected on the phone. I never yell. But, I will be stearn.

Great post. cd :O)

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MoneyNing May 20, 2009 at 9:51 am

She wasn’t polite at all and I’m pretty sure I heard someone pick up and just hung up but since I have no proof, I didn’t file a compliant.

Sorry to hear about the charges, and I too think that most people usually give up.

I once had a doctor call me a year later telling me that I owe $100 on a flu shot that wasn’t covered. I did pay since he mentioned that I took one because I said I went on a trip but I sure don’t remember whether I got the shot or not.

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ObliviousInvestor May 20, 2009 at 7:54 am

a) Congrats on getting the fee taken care of. Persistence pays off. :)
b) ATT sucks, heh. My experiences with them are always terrible.

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MoneyNing May 20, 2009 at 9:48 am

My experience with AT&T actually wasn’t that bad until this time where it took much more effort to cancel my plan than I would’ve liked.

The cell phone reception does suck where I live, but overall, everything was okay.

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nrlec May 20, 2009 at 8:18 am

Calm and assertive, the Dog Whisperer’s words to live by.

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Roxy May 20, 2009 at 8:21 am

I had a similar problem when I switched from getting prescriptions in person to getting them by mail. It should have saved me money, but I unfortunately had one script to pick up before the mail order would arrive. I asked if it was ok and the representative said sure.

Unfortunately I was charged full price. When I called to complain they told me it’s because I switched before I paid for the script. I didn’t know how to argue it. Even the manager told me “the rep shouldn’t have said that.” It was only $20, but come on… that’s about 5 starbucks lattes.

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Craig May 20, 2009 at 9:13 am

You would think att would have better customer service but they don’t. I get intimidated sometimes and frustrated easily if I hear no a few times, I agree the persistence pays off. It’s nice to no you new you had a legit reason.

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Erica Douglass May 20, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Yuck. I had to deal with something like that with Comcast recently. They charged me $50 for “unreturned equipment.” I called them and asked what that was about, and they said for a digital converter box that I had before I switched to Limited Basic. Only problem is I’ve never had a converter box — I started out with a TiVo when I signed up with them.

I just kept calmly repeating this to the rep, who finally got a supervisor on and got the charge waived, then faxed my local office to make sure they didn’t hassle me.

Not sure this is the end of it, but I won’t hesitate to call back. One cool thing about Comcast is @comcastcares on Twitter — if Comcast gives you any crap, just @comcastcares your problem and Frank (the guy on the other end of the Twitter account) will properly escalate it. Neat stuff.

-Erica

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Ryan @ SpendOnLife May 20, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Money Beagle,

I have also had good luck with Sprint Customer service, but not on the phone. Sprint is all over Twitter, has good IM CSRs, but I always try to just walk in the store. I know face to face is old fashion but they have always resolved any problem and you only have to explain it once.

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Nandan May 22, 2009 at 11:39 pm

I’ve had a very bad experience with AT&T once when I was trying to get my wife’s account switched over from another family plan to mine – they essentially removed it from the original one and then said they couldn’t add it to mine as is (due to some zonal issues) – but the frustrating thing there was that the first rep removed it from the original plan and then passed it over to some other department to add it to my plan – and guess what – that department claimed she was never a part of any family plan and that they cannot add it to mine. And there were lot of other issues in the process such as losing all rollover minutes although I had confirmed with two separate reps that they would not be affected.

Anyways after a week of extremely annoying phone calls and some after receiving the next bill it was sorted out, but since then whenever I have to check something explicit like expiration of contract, I always choose the email route rather ask the rep on phone as then I have somewhat of a documented evidence rather than just a name.

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CD Rates May 26, 2009 at 6:40 am

Using email is a good idea and hadn’t really thought of it. We tend to want things fixed now, and email takes longer.

I also wonder if you go the phone route, if they would send an email verifying the info you were asking about.

cd :O)

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Rajeev SIngh May 25, 2009 at 9:24 am

I do think that the steps mentioned in the psot will actually help in solving the problem, but, at times we might have to do more than this to get our way .. then we you must try lodging a complaint to consumer courts, moving ombudsman and finally taking the help of media … It really helps…

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Aleksandra July 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Sorry, but things don’t always work out this way. My husband and I finally teeminated our contracts early, knowing full well we would be heavily penalized ($1550.00 total), because every monthly bill we got had bogus charges on it. Every month I would call in and get the charges removed, which took several hours over several days each time. I’d literally start feeling physically ill every month around the time our bill would come in. Every month I would go through this, until one month they refused to delete the bogus charges & said that the charges would not be there unless we had done something related to them. The overcharge had been exactly the same amount every single month for over a year. I had been more than reasonable up to this point. Then I finally flipped out, cancelled all our services & contracts with them including cable, internet, cell phones, you name it. It was suddenly like a massive anvil had been lifted off my back.

Your theory is just that….a theory. I know from experience that it simply does not work, no matter how many times a person politely, logically & reasonably talks to managers, supervisors, etc adnauseum. That might work in a utopia, where companies actually care about their customers. The problem is, they don’t.

I still refuse to pay the $1500 penalty they slapped us with. We now live very happily & peacefully with over 40 free tv channels, $10/month prepaid unlimited internet for our 2 laptops & our iPad, and $27/month prepaid talk & unlimited text plans on our iPhones, which we bought cash, used, as well as another paltry $10/month for unlimited data plans on our iPhones . Our bills have dropped by over $500/month as a result, and we have zero bill related stress. We will never go back to paying any company for any long term service of any type. Why should the customer constantly be abused and then be expected to kiss @ss to beg to have those abuses stopped, month after month, year after year?

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Ed August 19, 2013 at 6:53 pm

So what’s happened as a result of your $1,500 non-payment? Anything? Collection agency? Credit bureau?

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