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Victoria nurse fights over-billing at restaurant

Jan. 18, 2011 at 6:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 17, 2011 at 7:18 p.m.


HAVE A QUESTION FOR WATCHDOG?To submit questions, e-mail watchdog@vicad.com, post them to the "Watchdog" blog or call Advocate Public Service Editor Gabe Semenza at 361-580-6519. No topic is off-limits.

Anita Delgado learned persistence pays when you feel a business overcharged you for goods or services.

The 66-year-old Victoria nurse paid $9 for two restaurant tacos - $3 more than she felt she owed.

Reimbursement required three phone calls and a return trip to visit the owner. Although the amount of money was relatively insignificant, Delgado pressed, she said, based on principle.

So, what can you do if a business overcharges you? What legal rights do you have?

Delgado is the first to admit that paying attention - at the restaurant register or store checkout line - is key. Knowing how much you should pay when you open your wallet can save time, headaches and money.

Ahmad Keshavarz, a consumer protection attorney with offices in Austin and New York, agreed.

"Do what my mom did," he said. "Watch them ring it up. Look at the bill when they give it to you and make sure that matches the list price or menu item."

If you fail to notice the overcharge until after you've paid, the law, fortunately, resides in your corner. Keshavarz highlighted two such laws.

The Fair Credit Billing Act protects consumers from credit card billing errors such as unauthorized or incorrect charges, math errors and plenty more.

"While frustrating, these errors can be corrected," the Federal Trade Commission notes on its website. "It takes a little patience and knowledge of the dispute settlement procedures provided by the Fair Credit Billing Act."

To take advantage of the law's consumer protections, the commission notes you should:

Write to the creditor within 60 days, and include your name, address, account number and billing error description.

Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested.

Include copies of sales slips and other documents to support your position.

By law, the creditor must reply to your complaint within 30 days - and resolve the dispute in fewer than 90 days.

But what if you paid with cash or check? Another law, the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, offers more broad consumer protections.

Keshavarz explained this law forbids businesses from misrepresenting goods or prices either on a menu, in advertising or elsewhere.

"The degree to which they make a misrepresentation, the stronger claim you have," he said. "If it's a misrepresentation, regardless of the amount of money, it's a claim. The amount of money might go to whether you want to go through the headache of filing a claim."

Delgado said she's happy she endured a similar headache - even if, in the end, her trouble paid $3.

"There's no way anyone should have to pay $9 for two tacos," she said. "People who own businesses have to listen to the customer, and work with them when the customer thinks there's a mistake."

Gabe Semenza is the public service editor for the Advocate. Comment on this story at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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