A hotel billing error ends in a lost chargeback. What happened?

A hotel billing error and a lost chargeback. What happened here? Michelle Couch-Friedman, author

Linda Ralston has been fighting an expensive hotel billing error for months. Several weeks after her 3-night stay at the Westin La Paloma in Tuscon, she discovered an extra night’s charge on her credit card. Now her battle seems to have ended in a lost chargeback, with the resort coming out the winner.

But with all the evidence on her side, how did she lose?

Ralston’s case is an unfortunate example of how credit card disputes can go wrong if your bank doesn’t take a keen interest in defending you. And it should also serve as a lesson for the Westin. Proper hotel hospitality should always include a careful review of all the facts of a guest’s complaint. That didn’t happen here — that is until Elliott Advocacy became involved. And this oversight led to months of unnecessary aggravation for Ralston.

Discovering a $200 hotel billing error

Ralston’s frustrating odyssey began last June when she checked into La Paloma for a 3-night getaway. At that time she was asked to sign a signature card, presumably for incidental charges during her stay. She had no idea that later that signature card would be used against her.

“On the day I checked out, June 24, I left at 1:46 p.m. The front desk employee gave me a receipt for my stay,” Ralston recalled. “The total was $624 for three nights. Several weeks later I noticed the hotel actually charged my credit card $832!”

Ralston immediately called La Paloma and reported the mistake. The additional charge seemed to be equivalent to one extra night. Since she had a copy of her final invoice for her stay, she assumed this hotel billing error would quickly be corrected.

She assumed wrong.

First, Ralston explained the billing mistake to a reservationist at the hotel. That person referred her to a supervisor. Then Ralston explained the error to him. That staff member transferred her to the billing department to retell her story for yet a third time.

How did Ralston’s signature get there?

The billing department employee told Ralston that she found no billing error. In fact, this employee informed a stunned Ralston that the additional charge covered the extra night that she had stayed at the hotel. Ralston explained that she had not stayed an extra night. But that employee remained unconvinced and would not reverse the charge. And when Ralston received a copy of that final invoice, she was surprised to find her own signature at the bottom.

Will this hotel billing error ever be corrected?
The newly updated final invoice with Ralston’s signature copied to the bottom.

“What’s your opinion of a hotel asking for a signature upon arrival and then later using it to overcharge a client?” Ralston asked me.

What’s my opinion? Of course, as a consumer advocate and a frequent traveler myself, I’m very much against this type of shenanigans. But since my opinion alone won’t resolve a case we needed to build the evidence of this overcharge.

Ralston then sent me a copy of the original receipt that she received at 1:46 p.m. on June 24 when she checked out. Each of these receipts had her identical signature at the bottom; giving the impression that she had signed both and approved the charges. As you’ll see later in this story, the Westin La Paloma used that signature to win the chargeback case.

Will this hotel billing error ever be corrected?
Ralston’s original receipt stamped at checkout on June 24 at 1:46 p.m.

Did a late check-out lead to this extra charge?

When I reviewed Ralston’s paper trail, I noted that she had checked out late. I suspected that late checkout had caused this problem.

Checking out late from a hotel without prior approval can trigger additional charges. But if the hotel intended to charge her for an extra day, she should have been informed at the time. She checked out and returned the keys to a front desk employee who made no mention of any extra charges coming her way.

But had Ralston really overstayed her welcome? The Westin La Paloma has a standard check out time of 11 a.m. So I asked Ralston about her unusually late departure.

“My original confirmation invited me to have a 3 p.m. late check-out,” Ralston explained. “I left well in advance of that cut-off. But I do think that’s what caused this confusion.”

Ralston forwarded the copy of her original confirmation that showed a 3 p.m. late checkout.

A late checkout led to this hotel billing error.

The Fair Credit Billing Act

The Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) protects credit card using consumers against billing errors. The following are examples of the types of billing errors covered under the FCBA:

  • unauthorized charges. Federal law limits your responsibility for unauthorized charges to $50;
  • charges that list the wrong date or amount;
  • charges for goods and services you didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered as agreed;
  • math errors;
  • failure to post payments and other credits, like returns;
  • failure to send bills to your current address — assuming the creditor has your change of address, in writing, at least 20 days before the billing period ends;
  • charges for which you ask for an explanation or written proof of purchase, along with a claimed error or request for clarification.

In Ralston’s case, the additional charge was unauthorized, and so the final bill was incorrect.

A lost chargeback investigation

After finding no one at La Paloma willing to look at the facts of her case, Ralston filed a credit card chargeback. She felt confident that her credit card company would be able to defend her and resolve this hotel billing error.

Ralston forwarded the copy of the original confirmation with the late checkout highlighted. She explained her suspicion that this late checkout had caused the confusion and the extra night’s charge.

During a credit card dispute, the merchant has 30 days to respond to the bank’s investigation. If the business declines to participate in the investigation or fails to provide proper justification for the charge the consumer wins the chargeback.

The Westin La Paloma fought Ralston’s chargeback of the extra night. It provided a copy of the updated invoice with the additional night charge with Ralston’s signature at the bottom.

“Because my signature was copied onto the overcharged invoice and the Westin also said they had proof that I was in the room, I lost the chargeback case,” Ralston lamented. “The $200 extra night charge came back to me.”

Proving that Ralston didn’t stay the extra night

Before contacting the hotel, I asked Ralston for some proof of her location on the night in question. I needed something to present to the hotel to convince an executive that its billing department had made a mistake.

Then we hit another problem. Ralston had driven to her vacation home about three hours north of the hotel. She said she didn’t have any evidence of her whereabouts that night — although she thought her neighbors might have seen her. Of course, it’s ridiculous that Ralston had to prove her location to this hotel, but the case had dragged on for so long that I felt sure it was necessary. After all, once a consumer loses a chargeback, it’s rare that a company will reopen the case.

I asked Ralston if she had purchased gas or made a phone call later that day. Luckily, she had made a phone call, and her cell phone records showed that she was nowhere near La Paloma that evening. Ralston forwarded a copy of her phone records.

Armed with this information, I reached out to both the manager of this hotel and its billing department.

The evidence clearly showed that the hotel’s billing department had made a mistake. Ralston had prior approval for a late checkout and she left La Paloma well in advance of that time. That evening she was home in her own bed not at La Paloma.

I also requested the evidence from the hotel that Ralston stayed the extra night — that proof the hotel claimed to have while fighting the chargeback case. As I suspected, there wasn’t any since she wasn’t there.

Reversing this hotel billing error

Within hours, Ralston’s frustrating battle came to a happy conclusion. I received the following email in response to my inquiry:

We have researched our records and discovered a clerical error. We will be issuing a refund to our guest.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Ralston is pleased that La Paloma has finally admitted to this billing mistake. But she remains disappointed that it took so much effort to reverse this charge.

Ralston’s frustration is reasonable. The hotel could have easily corrected this problem with a little personalized attention to the details months ago. And her credit card company let her down too. The facts were clear, but it appears that no one took the time to look at the evidence or hear this consumer.

Regular readers of our site know that Ralston’s case is not unique. Each week our advocacy team receives many pleas for help from guests who have been hit with surprise hotel charges, post stay. Some of these fees and accusations are more ridiculous than others (Here is the most ridiculous hotel theft charge I’ve ever seenThe most ridiculous hotel damage fee ever!) but they have all caused considerable distress to the traveler involved.

Unfortunately, these complaints seem to be on the rise.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure to follow the important guidance our publisher, Christopher Elliott offers in his article about how to fix your own consumer problem.

And if all else fails, remember you can contact our advocacy team through the Elliott Advocacy helpline. We’re here to help, and we’ll have your back!

 

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