Bank insists $1,390 gas bill is correct — now what?

Remember last year’s soaring gas prices? Annette Lazzarotto will never forget them. She paid $1,390 for a single tank of gas on a visit to Italy. What’s worse, her bank insisted the charges were legit, and billed her for the full amount.

It happened at a gas station on Via Cassia near our hotel. As it was “my turn” to pay for the gas and not noticing this error, I signed the receipt which was then charged to my Visa card. While obtaining the gas we noticed the attendant to be very different from all other stops at gas stations. He appeared nervous, rushing around and gruff with us. Although curious, we ignored the behavior as we always present ourselves with deference while traveling as visitors in foreign countries.

Sure enought, when Lazzarotto returned to the States, she found a $1,390 charge on her Visa bill.

I contacted my Schools Federal Credit Union Visa, which obtained a copy of the signed receipt and explained because it was signed they could not help me. I was told I had to contact the company myself regarding the dispute. I found the station and the parent station and through a Web search e-mailed representatives who admitted the error and initially discussed the process of crediting my account through several e-mails of various department levels at the parent company-ERG Petroli SPA.

I then provided Visa with all the copies of e-mails from this company in Italy (as my problem was forwarded to several staff). All e-mails demonstrated the company’s willingness to credit or provide a money wire to my bank account. I was then told by my bank that now that I had obtained agreement to credit the money they would take over and handle it.

After the Visa dispute department apparently “lost” my entire file, I was asked to send it again through my Credit Union in February. I provided copies of all the documents to Visa only to receive a letter this June that the ERG Petroli corporate office does not have authority to issue credits on behalf of the individual merchant location, and the location refused to issue the credit.

What next?

Well, the Fair Credit Billing Act doesn’t protect you for overseas purchases, so Lazzarotto needed to take the matter up with one of the companies — Visa, Schools Federal Credit Union or ERG Petroli. I recommended that she take her bank to small claims court to recover the $1,000 or so she was charged.

Yesterday, I heard back from her.

The process was quite simple as the courts provide online forms to complete with support for writing the “demand” letter. I sent this to my credit union who informed me they would turn it over to their attorneys. Within a week, a CEO at the credit union called me to say they would pay the charge and “they do not like their customers to have to experience fraud like that.” Interesting they were letting me experience that fraud for 16 months as I fought with them and their Visa dispute department to no avail.

I learned to check and keep all receipts as I travel and to not hesitate to use the small claims court process even against a large company.

That’s a great lesson learned — and a long overdue, but happy, ending.

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