Creative Consumer: Paying With Plastic Can Pay Off

There are a lot of stories in the news right now about credit card companies being hard on consumers. If the stories have you vowing to boycott your card, keep in mind that paying with plastic does have advantages.

As long as you're not a revolving debt junkie, paying by credit card can be a wise and wonderful choice. Why? When you use a credit card, if a company does you wrong, you can dispute the charges through your credit card company and then withhold payment until the matter is resolved.

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This privilege is guaranteed by the Fair Credit Billing Act. The act doesn't just protect you against wrongdoing by your credit card company. It protects you against bad businesses where you've used your credit card. Say you purchased unsatisfactory goods or services. Or maybe the seller mischarged you. Perhaps the items were not delivered as agreed. All these cases are covered.

Technically, according to the Federal Trade Commission, the Fair Credit Billing Act only applies to purchases of more than $50 made in your own state or within 100 miles of your home.

But in my experience, credit card companies typically expand the protection to include the entire United States. You're supposed to make a good-faith effort to settle the dispute with the seller first, but you're not required to prove that you've done so.

So all you have to do is write a letter to your credit card company within 60 days of receiving the bill with the disputed charge on it. Describe why you think the charge is unfair. Your credit card company then has two billing cycles (but no more than 90 days) to correspond with the seller and try to resolve the matter.

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If your claim is reasonable, chances are the credit card company will successfully fight for you. Be prepared, though, because sometimes credit card companies do side with the seller. If that happens, at least you'll have avoided paying for a couple months, enough time to research other avenues of dispute.

I once purchased theater tickets from a Dallas-based company for a trip to London. My trip was only a day away, and the tickets hadn't arrived. I called the company and the owner swore she'd sent the tickets long ago and refused to give me a refund. She practically accused me of trying to get the tickets for free.

With time running out before my trip, I decided to buy a second set of tickets from a different company and have them held at the box office. It was a great trip and a stellar show. When I returned home, I disputed the charge for the original tickets, and even though the seller had been incredibly rude to me, she knuckled under and gave in to my card company.

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