Few things are more infuriating than opening a credit card bill and finding a charge for something you didn't buy. Even if it's a small amount, it makes the average consumer's blood boil.
"I received a charge of $139.95 on my credit card statement. I have never authorized this and I have never received any notification that I would be charged," Kunal, of South Orange, New Jersey, told ConsumerAffairs.com.
The charge was for something called "Simple Escapes," a name that might be familiar to some unhappy consumers. In 2005 ConsumerAffairs.com received hundreds of complaints about this little-known membership services program after its charges began showing up on consumers' credit cards. Kunal said he was totally mystified.
"I don't know who this company is or what they do," he told us.
Simple Escapes is not really a company, but the name of a program, which is marketed by a company that markets a number of similar products. The Simple Escapes program is a collection of discounts on travel. People who travel a lot on business, or take lots of vacations, might consider it as a way to save money.
However, there is usually a monthly fee involved so if you don't travel for several months, you pay for discounts you are unlikely to use.
Simple Escapes, and programs like it, are most often marketed through third party partnerships companies already doing business with consumers, and already collecting consumers' credit card information.
As part of the transaction, the consumer might be offered a "free trial" of one of these discount programs, and unless they cancel after a short period of time, they are enrolled in the program and their credit card is charged each month.
In its most abusive form, this "free trial" is presented as a negative option. Unless the consumer un-checks a box during the transaction with the third party partner, they are enrolled in the program.
What to do?
What should a consumer do when this happens? Not what Kunal did at first.
"When I call the 888 number on the credit card statement for this company, the phone menu doesn't allow me to select an option to speak to someone," he told us.
Consumers have repeatedly told us that it is extremely difficult to reach a helpful person when they call any customer service number, listed on a credit card bill for one of these programs. The company placing the charge on the bill is required, by law, to provide a customer service number, but the law doesn't spell out how helpful that number has to be.
But Kunal's next move was exactly the right one.
"I've placed the amount in dispute with the credit card company," he told us. "I don't intend to pay it and I hope it stops here."
Chances are good that it will. When Kunal disputes the charge with his credit card company, it will withhold payment to Simple Escapes until it can prove that the sale was in fact, real.
The credit card company can ask for a "proof of purchase," either a tape recording of Kunal agreeing to accept the offer, or something in writing showing Kunal knowingly signed up for Simple Escapes.
If a marketer can't produce the proof, the marketer doesn't get paid and the consumer doesn't get charged.
It's also worth noting that any marketer who gets a large number of "charge-backs" is likely to be dropped by his credit card processor. So it's worthwhile challenging the charges not only to get your money back but also to put pressure on these companies to clean up their act.