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Find Free Money: Almost Every Bill You Get Is Full Of Mistakes

Publication: Forbes Published: June 21, 2011 Full Article

Written By Dan Schneider

Is your phone bill so phony that it’s secretly robbing you of thousands of dollars? Could your garbage costs be trashing your company? And are your payments for security services making you feel insecure?

If so, then you’re not alone.

An analysis by SIB Development & Consulting found that 95% of all regular monthly service bills contain errors – errors which can can add up to big bucks.

If you have an office, a building, workforce and clients, what you are being asked to pay in many cases is way too much.

On June 2, AT&T settled a nearly $1 billion class action lawsuit over improperly levied taxes on 32 million of its customers’ cell phone plans. The $956 million in refunds, ordered by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, covers callers who were illegally charged the taxes between 2005 and 2010.

In April, after a Justice Department probe, Verizon Communications agreed to a $93.5 million settlement with the General Services Administration for overcharging on contracts with its subsidiary MCI Communications for federal, state, and local taxes, surcharges, and other false billing. The billings were for voice and data telecommunications services.

Also in April, an investigation into trash charges from the Los Angeles Department Of Water & Power found that thousands of residents and businesses were being charged by the city for trash pickup for years, despite the fact that they had hired private companies to handle their garbage. Over 6,000 complaints have been received. Officials say it could take eight months to process reimbursement requests. In a 1998 class action suit, the city was sued for the same billing errors. Los Angeles settled the case in 2001, agreeing to pay full refunds to customers who’d been overbilled.

And last October, Verizon had to pay another $77 million in reimbursements and fines after the Federal Communications Commission investigated it for making wrongful cell phone charges. Verizon said it would give give refunds to about 15 million customers. Customers “who did not have data plans were billed for data sessions on their phones that they did not initiate,” Mary Covyne, Verizon Wireless deputy general counsel, said in a statement. It took two years for Verizon to reimburse its customers, according to FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Michele Ellison.

Meanwhile, bad contract terms for other everyday needs, ranging from utility payments to computer repair, are quietly gutting office checkbooks without most bosses being aware it’s even happening.

Everybody’s trying to save money in today’s economy. But how can you do it without spending, cutting jobs, or installing some new, fancy technology?

Here are six easy steps that can work for almost everyone:

  • Read the fine print. There’s a lot of fine print in contracts that’s not very fine for the businesses that sign them.
  • Look for terms in the contracts that lock you into services. Then check out how you can get out of them.
  • Make sure that you’re the one to approve all service contracts. Many larger companies have no problem letting lower level employees sign up for something that costs, say, $150 a month. But if it’s for a four-year time period, that’s a $7,200 decision, which should require approval from someone who is higher up.
  • Go on the hunt for clauses that automatically renew. Many agreements have auto-renew clauses that say if you don’t cancel the service within a certain window of time, it will continue. Make a calendar that tells you when to renegotiate your agreements before they renew.
  • Don’t sign up for pricing that runs out before the contract does. Find out what you’ll be paying a year from now. Sometimes, service providers lock you in with a teaser rate, but don’t tell you how much they’ll jack the price up in the future. You’re locking yourself in to whatever price they want to charge after, say, the first year.
  • And keep in mind that you can strike clauses and parts of a contract that you don’t like before you sign it. Just because a large service provider offers you its standard agreement doesn’t mean you can’t change it. Yet almost nobody realizes they have this hidden power!

Another bone of contention: contracts that stay with you no matter what. Check over each of your contracts to see what happens if you move your business or shut it down. If you move to a part of the city that’s not serviced by your current trash or cable provider, does the contract move with you? If so, you’ll still have to pay.

What’s the good news? You can probably find and fix many of these problems yourself. Or you can assign the task to an employee. A third option: hiring a consultant to examine your contracts and recommend cost-reduction strategies.

Whatever way you get the job done, it could reward you with more money  than what you’d gain by laying off a valued employee or what it would  cost to increase your sales. Without you even knowing it, you could be  sitting on a gold mine of savings that are just waiting for you to reap.