Few things are more annoying than getting notified by a collection agency that you owe money -- when you don't.
That's been happening recently to hundreds of former Charter Communications customers across the nation. Charter's billing system acted as if these ex-customers owed money for unreturned equipment when they didn't. Fixing the problem proved frustrating.
The problem was caused by Charter's conversion to a new billing system, but that happened two years ago. Only recently, though, were inaccurate bills for unreturned equipment sent out.
M.L. Bogan of Fort Worth disconnected her Charter service years ago. When she first received notice after her disconnection that she owed the company $25 for a modem, she explained that she had bought it.
Then last month, she started getting letters from a collection agency.
She called Charter to explain again, but a rep kept telling her to pay the $25 or return the modem.
"After going round and round in circles and getting nowhere," she says, she finally got a supervisor who took ownership of her case. She learned that Charter actually owed her $4.81.
Case closed? Not that easy. A week later, she received another collection agency notice claiming she owed Charter $4.81. She made more calls to Charter.
She also called the collection agency, which told her there would be a $9.95 processing fee for her to collect her $4.81 refund, but if she paid the $4.81 to them, they would waive the fee. (Yes, I know that doesn't make sense, but little of this does.)
She called Charter again and was told the company had to complete a form for her refund, then it would take six to eight more weeks to process the check. Her account with the collection agency would be cleared.
Then the Charter rep asked whether she wanted to stay on the line and complete a customer satisfaction survey. Really. (I would have!)
When Nancy Fitzhugh of Fort Worth ended her Charter service two years ago, she sent her modem back. In January, a collection agency demanded $33.
She says, "Their approach was 'It's only $33, and it would be easier just to pay it.'"
When she refused, an agent warned her, "We are not going away."
Oh, yeah? I shared her problem with my Charter contact. The calls stopped coming. Then last month, she received an unexpected refund of $45 from Charter.
Richard W. Cree Jr. dropped Charter a few years ago, and he returned his modem. After that, he kept receiving letters asking for $25. Each time, he'd call and explain that he returned the modem.
"This went on for over two years," he says. A month ago, he received a demand letter from a collection agency in Florida for $33.
He visited a Charter storefront in Keller. A Charter rep told him she heard the same story from other customers.
Turns out Cree had a $95 credit on his account that he didn't know about. After he received his refund, he took $25 of that to use for a gift card for the Charter rep who had been kind to him. Classy.
Charter spokesman Kevin Allen says, "These accounts should not have been sent to the collector, and Charter corrected this as soon as we realized the error that had occurred."
The company is changing its procedures to review equipment returns and compare them with a customer's credit balance before collection agencies are notified, he says. He estimates that less than 1 percent of Charter's customers were affected.
What do you do if you get caught in a similar comedy of errors?
The Charter spokesman suggests: "Keeping detailed records and receipts is key. In the example of Ms. Fitzhugh, she had maintained detailed records including her receipt for returned equipment, which made her situation simple for Charter to resolve.
"In addition, Charter's associates at our sales and service centers are trained to research and resolve all situations that arise. Visiting one of our community offices is another way to resolve an issue such as this."
The Watchdog adds that federal law gives consumers protection when they are served with false collection notices. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is the rulebook for these situations.
Consumers wrongly dunned need to send a letter to the collector challenging the debt. That starts the clock, giving the collector 30 days to prove that the debt is accurate.
It ends up a battle between your paperwork and theirs, and that's why keeping receipts for returned equipment is vital.
The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.