How to Spot and Fight Unfair Fees
It's almost impossible to get through life without running into the occasional unfair fee or fine – those you feel are unnecessary or excessive.
So what can you do?
Actually, that part is relatively easy. Over and over, you hear from consumers and financial experts that if you get slammed with a fine or fee you feel is unfair, stand up for yourself. Talk to whomever you need to. Don't give up, at least not right away.
What's less obvious is how to recognize that an obnoxious fee is coming, or to even notice it in the first place. So as you make your monthly payments and navigate your finances, keep an eye out for fees and fines in these scenarios.
The unfair fee buried in the legitimate fees. Sometimes, when you pay for a service or product, it comes with fees, and that's just the way it is. Think of some airlines, or when you invest money or buy a car.
Buying a house is also an experience notorious for its closing costs, which are a series of fees: a survey fee, an appraisal fee, a commitment fee, an administration fee and the beat goes on.
Kim Parr, a part-time optometrist in Cortez, Colorado, who blogs about financial issues at EyesontheDollar.com, says that a few years ago, when she was refinancing her home, she was looking over the extensive list of fees, and there it was: a courier fee.
"Since everything was done electronically, I thought it was pretty odd that we were being charged for a courier," Parr says.
She was only charged 12 bucks, but as Parr says, "We paid thousands in closing costs ... I was not about to pay extra for a fee that became obsolete years ago."
It took some back and forth, but Parr wore down the lender and the fee was removed.
The easy-to-misunderstand fee. Todd Brabender, who owns a public relations firm in Lawrence, Kansas, says that he and his wife, Trish, were recently in Florida, watching their daughter compete in a collegiate dance team competition. When Brabender was at the baggage claim, his wife went to the counter of the rental car agency.
The sales clerk said she could "give you an upgrade at a discount," which the Brabenders took to mean they were getting an upgrade and a discount from the $38-a-day price they found through a booking service. So they thought they'd be paying less than $38 a day.
They were upgraded from a Toyota Corolla to a convertible Mustang and then charged an additional $38 a day, on top of the initial $38.
Apparently, the clerk meant that without the discount, they would have been charged even more than $38 for the upgrade.
"My wife noticed the charge on the credit card bill and had to call them five different times before they fixed it, and we got the refund of the overcharges," Brabender says.
The fine print fee. Marilyn Santiesteban, an assistant director of career services at Texas A&M University, says that when she was paying for an expensive home renovation, she was hammered with fees from a big-name bank.
"I moved money into my checking account from another account at the same bank. I waited two days, and then wrote some big checks for materials and to the electrician, plumber," Santiesteban says. "A few days later, I was shocked to get hit with bounced check fees."
The fees totaled over $300.
When Santiesteban wrote her checks, she knew her money was still in "pending," but the website she'd been looking at said it took two days to transfer. She had neglected to look at every page on the bank website. If she had, she would have noticed the fine print that mentioned that while it usually took 24 hours to make a transfer, sometimes it took five days.
But adding insult to injury, the money did show up on the same day that the checks came through. The bank, however, processed the checks first, and then put her money into the account.
Despite being a customer at the bank for over 20 years and knowing everyone at the local bank, the manager didn't reduce or refund the fees. Santiesteban left, choosing a small regional bank and hasn't paid an overdraft fee since. That was seven years ago.
The rules-have-changed fee. If you don't know that the rules for a bank, credit card or some other service have changed, then there isn't much you can do. (Life is too short to be on the lookout for every tweak a business makes in how its customers pay.) But if you do know that changes are coming, watch out. It may be that the service you're using feels you've been getting by far too long without paying an extra fee.
For instance, Gary Frisch, a Philadelphia resident who also owns a public relations firm, says that his mortgage bank had a grace period for late payments, so that if you didn't pay on the first of the month, you had until 3 p.m. on the 16th to pay, and you wouldn't be late.
But a couple of months ago, he says his mortgage lender revamped its website and the online payments page.
"That month, I went online [at] about 11 a.m. on the 16th to make the payment. I was concerned that the new payment page only gave me the option of the 17th as my payment date, but I continued anyway," Frisch says. "Wouldn't you know my next mortgage bill included a $47 late fee?"
Like so many consumers before him, Frisch argued his case, telling everyone he could at his mortgage servicing company that just because the payment processing system was changed without warning, he shouldn't be held liable for a late fee. It took talking to several people along the ladder, but eventually Frisch found a supervisor who was willing to reverse the charge.
The invisible fee. Those are the fees that may be legitimate, but there is nobody and nothing around to alert you of their presence, and you have absolutely no reason to suspect they would exist. Still, if it happens to you, maybe you'll feel better knowing that you aren't alone – and that you should try and fight this scenario.
For instance, Judy Williams, who works for an emergency fire and water restoration company, moved three years ago to Racine, Wisconsin, parked her car in front of her new house and was soon given a parking ticket.
She was perplexed and drove to the police department to ask why she had a ticket. "To my utter surprise, I was informed that there is alternate street parking, and I had been parked on the wrong side of the street," Williams says.
She mentioned that she hadn't seen any street signs. The officer's response: "Well, there are no signs. Everyone knows about it."
Two months later, Williams showed up in court to contest the $20 ticket (it was the principle of the thing), stressing that she was new to the neighborhood and couldn't possibly have known about this. The judge sided with her, but apparently the rules of the court forbade him to eliminate the ticket altogether. He did reduce it, however, to 10 bucks.
"It was the best that was going to happen, so I had no choice to agree to it," Williams says, "though it seemed like I was being penalized for not knowing the rules, yet they didn't make the rules visible."
The rule didn't make much sense either. Naturally, Williams asked why she couldn't park on her side of the street. She was told that cars couldn't park there to free up space for snow removal.
It was July.