Getting money back from a credit card company is not something most consumers expect, but for millions of cardholders, that's exactly what will happen.
More than a year and a half ago, MasterCard, Visa and Diners Club, along with several of their member banks, agreed to pay $336 million to settle allegations of charging excessive fees to U.S.-issued cardholders who made purchases overseas. The defendants have denied any wrongdoing in the case.
The class-action alleged that from February 1996 to November 2006, the card issuers and their banks conspired to set hidden, fixed fees -- anywhere from 1 percent to 3 percent -- on foreign transactions.
For consumers, that could equal several cents to several hundred dollars for anything from paying for a London hotel room to withdrawing euros from an ATM in Paris to using a debit card for an espresso in Rome. Businesses can also claim a refund from the settlement if employees used corporate credit cards while traveling.
The case started just over seven years ago when Robert Ross and two others filed the first federal lawsuit in Philadelphia against the card issuers.
In 1999, Ross, now 61, had returned from a business trip to Europe and was working on his expense report, but he couldn't get his expenses to balance
"I couldn't figure out what was going on," he said.
As he looked further into the accounting issue, he eventually discovered what appeared to be hidden transaction fees and decided to file a lawsuit against the credit card issuer.
"I felt like someone I knew and trusted was stealing money out of my pocket," said Ross.
Eventually, his case became a class action involving more than 20 law firms.
"It is one of the largest in anti-trust class actions," said Ross' attorney, Merrill Davidoff, with Berger Montague in Philadelphia. "Hopefully, we will be able to get a fair amount of money back to card holders who paid the fees."
To get the word out to cardholders who might be eligible for a refund, a notice was included in credit card bills from January to March of last year. But by the fall, only 100,000 claims had been submitted. Some feared that the notice had been thrown out like other paperwork often included with bills.
So in late November, more than 38 million, large, multipage letters with "U.S. District Court Approved Refund Notice" stamped on the front were mailed.
People got the message. There are now more than 8 million claims awaiting approval.
"It's one of the highest claim response rates in history of class actions," said Davidoff.
Cardholders who fill out mailer sent to them or apply online at www.ccfsettlement.com have three options when requesting a refund.
Easy: Ask for a set refund of $25. This choice is recommended for people who took short trips overseas or spent less than $2,500.
Medium: Request a total estimated refund based on typical spending while overseas.
Hard: Request a refund based on annual overseas spending based on actual receipts.
Refund requests will be reviewed, and only one will be provided per household, no matter how many cards were used.
Ross has filed his own refund claim and hopes to receive several hundred dollars.
A final settlement hearing is scheduled for March 31, while the deadline to request a refund is May 30, 2008. After that, the check, as they say, is in the mail.