Monday, Nov. 16, 2009

Avoid Fee Creep ...

... and watch for unauthorized charges. Fees are going up across the services spectrum as companies look for ways to bolster revenue in a slow economy — and the worst part is that the increases typically are done so quietly you may not figure them out for months. The banking industry has been most aggressive on this front, having raised the price of just about everything from overseas charge-card transactions, ATM withdrawals and rewards cards dues to late payments, cash advances, overdraft protection, wire transfers and even insufficient card activity. It's all disclosed — in the fine print somewhere on page 98. Good luck with that. At the same time, sneaky marketers are finding ways to hit you with small monthly charges that often go undetected by cardholders for months, and once found can be difficult to stop.

You are most at risk when you accept a free trial for any product or service (it just keeps coming and you just keep getting charged) or agree to a monthly payment for, say, access to an online game that you get tired of but can't seem to cancel. Sometimes after successfully canceling, the charges inexplicably start again a few months later. Bank fees and unauthorized (or forgotten) recurring charges can easily cost you $1,000 or more each year. Your best protection is to do a line-by-line review of your charge-card statements every month, paying attention to each charge no matter how small (indeed, especially the small ones) as well as to the interest rate and fees you are paying. Don't assume a phone call to a merchant or service provider will end unwanted charges; you have to keep monitoring your statement and complain to the card company if you are unable to cancel a recurring charge.