Like pulling teeth: Scrutinize your bills
By Joel Dresang
I’ll spare you from reading the whole story – which includes threats of collection agencies and lawyers, stonewalling, government intervention and premature hopes of resolution.
If you want to skip all that, here’s the moral: Review your account statements regularly, and speak up about anything amiss. Considering all your effort to earn, save and invest money, you owe it to yourself to scrutinize how it’s spent.
Now, my story.
My troubles began more than a year ago with a letter from the billing department of my dentist. It said I had a delinquent account. The balance past due: $0.00.
The notice warned that my family and I could lose our dental services and that an attorney and bill collector could come after me, so there could be additional attorney fees and credit bureau reports on top of my overdue $0.00.
The notice was dated 20 days after I had called the office about a bill for $0.00. The office told me then to ignore the bill and said the same thing when I called about the threatening letter. At my next appointment, I told my hygienist and dentist about the letter. They apologized and said they weren’t aware of the billing problems. That seemed to be the end of it.
Then in August, I got a bill for nearly $1,000, including $750 in overdue payments.
This time when I called the office, I was told the $750 was owed from procedures that occurred in July 2021. When I asked for further explanation, I was put on hold for a manager. I was disconnected after 17 minutes then put on hold for another eight minutes when I called back. While on hold, I was able to thumb through past statements showing that the July 2021 procedure was paid for. I explained that to Ken, the manager who finally picked up. He said someone would call me back.
A week later – the day before the bill was due, I called back and was told to leave my name and number for Ken. Two days later, same thing. Three days after that, I sent a letter, asking for an explanation in writing.
Two weeks after my letter to the dental group, I filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection. A state investigator immediately sent a letter to the business asking for a response to my questions. The investigator cautioned me to be patient.
By that point, I wasn’t as concerned for my own circumstances. (I saw no evidence that I had done anything wrong.) But I worried about other patients receiving erroneous bills. I worried they might not question the charges, or if they did, that they might just give up and pay it after no one called them back.
Four weeks later – about seven weeks after the $1,000 bill was due – I got an email from someone who said she was assisting the dental group. She said the group had gone through an ownership change and was implementing new software and decentralized billing. She assured me I owed nothing.
I emailed her back the next day when I got a bill in the mail for $130. The numbers didn’t add up. She looked into it and couldn’t explain it. She apologized and reassured me I owed nothing.
End of the story (?)
I provide (abbreviated) details as a reminder of the excruciating rigmarole consumers can face. My story isn’t extraordinary. And it has a happy ending – although I’m still concerned about other patients.
The moral bears repeating: Review your bills and speak up.
“Unfortunately, what you’re talking about is not unusual,” Ben Merens, an outreach specialist for the state Bureau of Consumer Protection, told me.
In addition to honest mistakes by legitimate businesses, consumers have to watch out for swindlers posing as companies, government agencies and even relatives.
“Be skeptical of any correspondence you don’t initiate,” Merens said.
Be especially wary of anything seeking money or personal information – especially if it’s imposing a quick turnaround or threatening harsh consequences.
“You should always review your bill. Question it,” Merens said.
Whether you think you can trust the bill or not, examining it can help protect you from scammers as well as genuine blunders. Here are some considerations.
- Form relationships. Our interactions as consumers have become more remote and virtual, which may be more efficient but has its costs. By getting to personally know individuals where you do business, you can feel more comfortable raising questions when you have them.
- Call and talk to someone. Don’t trust the phone number on the bill because it may be part of a scam, Merens noted. Find a number through your past communications or by searching the internet. If you have a customer relationship with someone at the business, ask for that person.
- Seek help. If a bill doesn’t make sense to you, and the business can’t explain it to your satisfaction, run it by someone else – family, friend, coworker – to hear what they think. In my case, Merens suggested it might have helped to contact my insurance company, which has a vested interest in correct billing. Check with an agency like the Bureau of Consumer Protection to see if other customers have complained.
- Use your words. Many consumers struggle to make a “succinct assessment” of their situation, Merens said. Figuring out how to communicate your problem clearly and concisely is worth the time and effort because it helps others help you.
A gaping downside in the push to go paperless, with online statements and automatic payments, is that it’s easier to neglect routine reviews of our bills before we pay them.
That last $130 bill from my dentist came as an email: No explanation for what it covered, just an invitation to go online and pay it.
My misadventures with dental billing reminded me how lax I am at going over online financial statements. They spurred me to review the last several months of charges to my credit cards and an online payment app I use. In the process, I discovered that Amazon was charging me $8 a month for a subscription that I no longer received.
As with old-fashioned paper bills, electronic statements don’t take long to review. I’ll just make a better habit of looking them over within a day or two — and challenging anything that appears askew.
Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.
Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection
Pros and Cons of Paperless Billing Statements, from The Balance
How to read your credit card statement, from Bankrate.com
Understanding Your Telephone Bill, from the Federal Communications Commission
When Should I …check my investment accounts?
It pays to pay attention to your brokerage account statements, from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the North American Securities Administrators Association and the Securities Investor Protection Corp.
It pays to understand your brokerage account statements and trade confirmations, from FINRA
Unraveling the role of paper, by Joel Dresang
Credit yourself by staying vigilant, by Joel Dresang
(initially posted Dec. 29, 2022)
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