Dealing With Bills That You Don't Get

Times Staff Writer

Question: Twice I have had trouble with credit card accounts involving cards I infrequently use. In both cases, I failed to pay a bill because the bill was not received. I did not notice I failed to receive the bills because many months I do not use these cards even once. In one case I received a past-due notice via Mailgram. In the other case, an oil company had mistakenly entered a change-of-address on my account and had sent my bills to Atlanta. As soon as my correct address was re-entered on the account (I called when I did not receive a renewal for an expired card), I received an alarming letter from a collection agency.

Fortunately, both of these situations have been corrected. However, they both leave me with a curious question. Both creditors told me that I was really at fault for not calling them when I failed to receive a bill within 10 days of their normal billing date. I know that I should call if my mortgage bill or my Visa and MasterCard bills don't show up because they are used every month. However, am I really responsible for paying irregularly used charge accounts when no bill has been received?--D.R.

Answer: This is an old and nagging question for which there really isn't a very satisfactory answer, according to Ken McEldowney, executive director of San Francisco-based Consumer Action, a long-established consumer education and advocacy organization.

"The whole thing boils down to the reliability of the post office, and no one, unfortunately, buys the 'it got lost in the mail' excuse anymore.

"And," McEldowney added, "we have to appreciate the fact that, in this computerized age, the company sending the bill really doesn't know whether it was actually sent out or not or, naturally, whether it was received."

Ideally, the credit grantor would send all of its cardholders a monthly bill--whether any balance is owing or not. But, McEldowney also conceded, that simply isn't economically feasible--some credit accounts carried by specialty stores, for instance, may not be used more than once a year, if that.

"What we're trying to educate credit grantors to do," he added, "is to fully, and prominently, inform the consumer about the company's billing procedure at the time the card is issued: that the bills are mailed between such-and-such days of the month and that, if a consumer knows a purchase was made that should appear on the bill--and if no bill shows up before such-and-such a date--the consumer should call immediately. And," McEldowney said, "we think a reminder along these lines should be sent out periodically."

No, it's not a foolproof system and it never will be. But to take an iron-clad position that the consumer has no responsibility for paying bills not received simply isn't the answer.

"You really can't make a defense out of the flat statement: 'I never got the bill.' " McEldowney added.

Q: Last summer I purchased four Continental Airlines Travel Certificates for $89.95 each through Lucky markets. I then reserved two round-trip tickets, Los Angeles to San Antonio, for early December, finding that, compared to the going rate, the certificates would save me some money. Imagine my surprise when, after I redeemed the certificates for tickets at a Continental office at the end of October, the agent indicated the earlier rates had been lowered and were currently only $138 per round trip. Because the certificates are "non-refundable, non-transferable and non-reissuable," no change or adjustments could be made following the printing of the tickets, and I was stuck with them at $179.90 per round trip. Don't you think that prior to issuing the tickets, the agent should have informed me that I could have purchased them at a lower price and saved $83.80? Had I known that, I would certainly have been happy to pay cash and save the certificates for another trip. I have since written to the customer relations department of Continental Airlines in Houston twice (Nov. 3 and Dec. 3) and phoned them once, but I have received no response. Do I have any recourse in this matter?--D.H.

A: It's too bad that airline arrival and departure times aren't as predictable as the endless up-and-down adjustment of their prices. Right now we're in a down cycle. The beginning of summer will probably trigger an up cycle.

The special offer that you snapped at last summer, according to Rick Scott, Continental's public relations spokesman in Houston, was indeed a good deal--so good, in fact, that the airline discontinued it in short order.

"As summer progressed," Scott said, "it became increasingly clear that it wasn't simply a bargain but a super bargain. You could almost fly any place in the country for $99, and we simply couldn't meet the demand or provide the seats. It didn't take people long to figure out that they could save anywhere from $100 to $200 on a round trip."

Competitive fluctuations in air fares are as predictable as spots on a leopard, and the airlines are constantly getting caught in the middle. The situation you encountered was out of the norm, though, Scott added. The usual scenario has the passenger paying the lowest fare available and, subsequently, competition forces the general rate upward.

"Naturally," Scott continued, "when this happens--when the fare goes up --the passenger doesn't pay any more. We eat the difference."

But in your case, what Continental--and a whale of a lot of other people too--considered a "super bargain" took on a different light when the general rates went down even further.

"In the rare cases when this happens," Scott said, "we normally protect the customer even if it is a non-refundable ticket--with vouchers for the difference or something like that. This is assuming, of course, that the passenger hasn't changed his travel plans--that he sticks to the same flight on the same day."

And this, reading between the lines, is what you did. Scott is also disturbed that your attempts to contact Continental's customer service department in Houston have, so far, been a bummer. He has promised to look into it and contact you directly.

A little time lag in these adjustments, he explained, is to be expected since "the certificates were actually bought from us by a third party and then resold to the supermarket--in this case, Lucky--and so the money has changed hands several times, and it complicates tracking one individual transaction down."

But you should be hearing from Continental soon about the adjustment due you.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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