True story: One time, the local gas company failed to turn off my heat at my old apartment. I called about moving to a new address, and scheduled a date to turn off the heat in the old apartment and to turn it on at the new place. I did everything on time. I did everything right. And yet, the gas company still contacted me months later. They said that I owed them hundreds in unpaid gas bills, and they were going to shut off the gas in my new home. As it happened, they failed to shut off the gas in my old apartment, and new tenants had moved in there, taking hot showers, doing dishes, and using gas to heat the place. The gas company demanded that I pay the bill for the gas used in that old apartment; toasty heat and fresh hot water which the new tenants had been enjoying all this time for free. The injustice! I called the gas company immediately. The person who I talked to was not nice to me, at least not at first. She genuinely thought I had failed to pay my bills. Eventually, it became clear that it was the gas company and not me who had dropped the ball. Fortunately, my records were organized and accessible. I still had proof of payment for my last bill at my old address. I could show proof that I had paid every bill in full and on time at my new address, and the gas company realized their mistake. What should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?
Plan A: Dispute the Error.
When disputing an error – be proactive. Being proactive means you should act before anything bad happens. The very best way to be proactive is to pay all your bills on time and in full. If you think you will be late, the next best way to be proactive is to contact your creditor(s) before you miss a payment.
- Creditors evidently think you are a machine and that you make exactly the right payment at exactly the right time, every time. Creditors believe that nothing in life ever changes your focus on the most important priority: that your payment reaches them in full and on time, exactly as expected. If you assume this Borg-like rigidity is absolutely true, you will probably never be surprised by their behavior.
- If you ever do miss a payment or submit a late or partial payment, a creditor is likely to regard this as a default on your agreement to pay with machine-like precision. Expect them to react badly, and expect to pay a heavy price.
- Call before you miss a payment, explain your situation and work with them to come up with a solution.
- Escalate the situation when necessary. Don’t be afraid to ask for the customer service representative’s supervisor. Be polite, but be sure to push to resolve the issue when you know you are right and the person on the phone is not helping you. Still not getting the help you need from the supervisor? Go to their manager.
Plan B, part one: Act Quickly.
Sometimes you can’t avoid trouble, and an error is made even though you did everything right. If that is the case, you have to address the problem promptly. Being prompt means acting to correct the error as soon as you are aware of it. Dispute the error immediately.
- Dispute an error in writing if the error is on a credit report.
- Dispute an error over the phone, or face to face if the error is on a bill from a creditor.
- Always make a record of the dispute. Write the details on your calendar or document them in a folder. Ask the creditor or credit bureau to send you a written, dated statement acknowledging your dispute. Keep the record of the dispute.
- Keep copies of receipts for small purchases you make and utility bills you pay for a year. Show copies of receipts to support your dispute.
Plan B, part two: Be Polite.
Being in debt and being wrongly accused of owing a debt is stressful. Nevertheless, when you negotiate proactively or dispute an error, you must be extremely courteous. You must address the other party calmly and with respect at all times.
- When it comes to clearing up a problem with your credit, another party may be wrong, rude, and the situation may be terribly unjust. Be polite anyway.
- This is because you are the one harmed by the defaulted debt or billing error. You are the only one who will be harmed if you offend the other party, and they decide not to cooperate with you. You are not the one who is going to be clever enough to teach the other party the lesson they so desperately need to learn. You’re just not.
- Think: Your risk of harm is great, and you have virtually nothing to gain from being rude.
- Consider making it your personal policy in such cases to always take the highroad when dealing with creditors. Decide in advance that you will work with them cooperatively, humbly, patiently, and very politely. It may be hard, but your good credit is worth working hard for.
Keep your good credit, good.
- Pay on time and in full. Keep good, up to date records. You don’t need to hoard, throw out your receipts periodically. But you must stay organized.
- Check your credit report. You can go to www.annualcreditreport.com and review your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies – Transunion, Experian and Equifax. If you are blessed with machine-like savvy, you can pull one report every four months on a constant, rotating schedule, and keep a very close eye on your own credit, entirely for free.
- Dispute all errors, immediately.
- You can get your credit report for free from each bureau one time in a 12-month period. If you have pulled a report from the same bureau within the last 12 months, they may charge a reasonable fee for you to get a new one. Contact them if you need to, and pay the small fee if you need to.
- Look at your report regularly. Look for errors. If you see anything wrongly reported, dispute those errors, as soon as possible.
- You should also notify the creditor that provided the erroneous information to the credit bureau. Contact that creditor, tell them what is wrong, and that you are disputing it with the credit bureaus.
- Ask the creditor to review its records, and to give you evidence that shows you owe on the bill. Offer to mail copies of documents that support your position to the provider.
Back to that true story about the error on my gas bill. Yes, it was satisfying when the customer service representative at the gas company changed her tune and went from being rude to apologetic. It’s hard to backtrack like that without looking a little foolish. Paying on time and keeping an eye out for errors are important, but so is staying calm and respectful when you dispute an error. When you are polite, it is easier to admit you made an honest mistake if records end up showing you really do owe a bill. If you really don’t owe it? Your end game is to get an error verified and your record cleaned up as quickly as possible. That might happen all the more promptly if you are polite and graciously forgive an honest mistake made by someone else.