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E-Bills and You: Are You Overpaying?

Today’s eco-friendly consumers like to do everything “green.” In fact, many consumers have tossed paper aside, opting to receive bills electronically through their bank or creditor rather than the mail. This switch to electronic billing makes sense because the process is so simple. Consumers zip online, elect to receive electronic statements, type in some basic account information, and voila - bills start arriving in their email inboxes. Consumers can view online everything that normally appeared on their paper statements (e.g., balances, transactions, applicable fees, payment information, etc.) and with a few computer mouse or smart phone clicks, pay their bills without ever writing a check or licking a stamp.

However, in an attempt to streamline the bill payment process, how many consumers actually open up and view their online statements to check for errors? The answer is likely only a few. So what if your bill contains an error? If you’re someone who simply pays the bottom-line amount due, you’d never notice a mistake, and you could end up paying more than you actually owe.

To eliminate this possibility, here are some tips to ensure your e-bills are accurate. (Note that much of this advice applies to paper statements you receive in the mail, too.)

  • Schedule a specific time to review your e-bills. Set aside a specific time to review your statements. One option is to review them the same day you receive them. Alternatively, schedule a day once a week to review any e-bills you received during that period. Making an “appointment” makes it more likely that you’ll actually complete this task.
     
  • Store and match up receipts against your e-bills. Keep an envelope or some other filing system for each credit card account you have. Then, each time you make a purchase, file the receipt appropriately so you can easily match it against charges appearing on your monthly e-bill, and identify any duplicate charges, incorrect charge amounts or a charge for something you didn’t purchase. If you spot an error, resolve the issue with your service/card provider immediately and before paying the balance due. (See the last bullet for details.)
     
  • Confirm extra charges and fees. For utility e-bills in particular, you’re probably paying additional fees each month to cover taxes, 911, regulatory or franchise fees, to name a few. An occasional phone call to your service provider can keep these fees in check and ensure that you’re paying only those fees that you’re required to pay.
     
  • Compare recurring e-bills. If you simply pay your e-bills without comparing them month-to-month, you might not notice an unexpected increase. For example, if your one-year promotional cable plan expired and you previously received premium movie channels for no additional charge, you might be paying $20 more for such monthly services currently. But if you don’t compare your e-bills each month and simply pay the bottom line, you’d never notice. (Another tip: Call your cable company and ask that they re-instate those premium channels or even offer you a cheaper plan for the same service!)
     
  • Check for service call charges. It always happens: Either a storm wipes out your cable service or your Internet service goes down mysteriously. Days later, a technician arrives, fixes the problem and tells you to call the provider to receive credit for those missed days of service. You make the call, but if you don’t confirm the credit on your e-bill, how will you know if you over-paid for services that month? Take responsibility for each dollar or coin you fork over. Additionally, some service providers charge for such service calls while others don’t. If a cable provider has to come to your home to fix a problem with their wires or system, for example, you might not have to pay for that service call, so make sure the charge doesn’t hit your e-bill. Alternatively, if the problem is on your end, expect to be charged.
     
  • Make sure your last payments were applied correctly. Compare the amount you paid to your provider in the previous month against the amount recorded on your e-bill to make sure they’re the same. Also, check when your payment was recorded to make sure any late or additional fees weren’t inaccurately applied to the current month’s statement.
     
  • Check recurring payments, too. Just because you think you’ve mastered timely payments by setting up recurring e-payments through your online banking system, it doesn’t give you a free pass to stop monitoring these accounts; it’s just as critical to keep a close eye on these bills. For example, if you receive a newspaper at your doorstep daily but halt service while you’re vacationing for one week, you might be credited for those days. This is something to check in your next e-bill.
     
  • Address errors immediately. The Fair Credit Billing Act established consumer protections against billing errors on credit card statements (e.g., double billing, billing for merchandise you didn’t purchase, etc.). When you spot an error, contact the creditor immediately to correct the problem yourself. If you’re not successful, follow specific steps within a certain timeline to protect your credit score and rectify the problem quickly.

Many Americans multi-task their way through life and seek shortcuts for everything. That, and our desire for all things “green,” is why so many people pay bills electronically – to eliminate the tedious task of writing and mailing checks by hand and to save paper. Admittedly, e-bills make the process quick and convenient, but in our effort to shortcut the bill-paying process, it’s equally important to confirm that the e-bills we’re paying are accurate. Don’t throw away your hard-earned money. Instead, follow the tips above to ensure you’re paying only the amount you owe because even in today’s automated world, billing mistakes can happen, and it’s up to you to find them.  

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