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The only cookbook I ever bought cost 75 cents at a library sale. The other ones in my kitchen arrived as gifts or freebies.
So I was not happy to see a $36.99 charge labeled “Food Wine Cookbook” when I checked my Mint.com account Monday.
I didn’t order such a cookbook. Nor did I order one in February, but I found an identical charge in an American Express statement from that month.
Then I remembered: When I signed up for the card, I received an offer for a free cookbook. The Food & Wine Annual Cookbook 2012, from American Express Publishing Corp., is in my kitchen.
When Free Got Expensive
I’m usually very suspicious about accepting free things, and I like to think I was careful when sending for that cookbook. Obviously, I missed something.
I let that February charge go, thinking I’d correct it once I received and returned the book. And that’s the problem: I was charged for and never received the cookbook, then I forgot about it.
When I saw the new charge, I called customer service. Customer service told me to call American Express Publishing Corp.
American Express Publishing, I’m happy to report, was very helpful. Within minutes of connecting, the friendly representative canceled the subscription and initiated a refund of $73.98, which should appear on my account in seven to 10 business days.
As annoyed as I was to have to deal with the charges, I’m glad it was easy to resolve, and I’m confident the refund will come through on time.
Fighting Hidden Charges
Transactions like my unwanted cookbooks are called gray charges, and they’re pretty common. In a recent survey by BillGuard and Aite Group, nearly 35% of the roughly 5,000 surveyed have experienced gray charges, with an average transaction of $61. The same survey found hidden credit card charges and fees cost cardholders about $14.3 billion in 2012.
Consumers experience 15.4 million unwanted subscription charges each year.
To keep these unwanted charges off your bank statement, the most important thing to do is pay attention. There are a few ways to stay on top of this:
1. Read the Terms
I love free things. I especially love to try things for free before buying them, but free-to-paid deals are the most common gray charges. If you’re accepting something for free, read the fine print. In the case of a free trial, see if you’re required to cancel it, then set a calendar reminder so you don’t forget when it expires.
2. Check Your Statements
Whether or not you’re worried about gray charges, regularly checking your bank statements is a good habit. I’m really pleased that American Express is refunding me for the charge from February, but it’s best to address suspicious or errant transactions as soon as possible.
“Consumers sometimes pay grey charges for years because they don’t bother to check their statements carefully and take the time to dispute items,” says Gerri Detweiler, Credit.com’s Director of Consumer Education. “Over time, though, small monthly charges can add up to big bucks.”
3. Attack the Problem
Calling customer service can be a pain, but problems won’t be solved if they’re not addressed. Dial and hope for the best. Take notes of whom you speak to and what they said, in case something gets messed up along the way.