Collection agency called after passenger questions BahnCard billing

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Haroldy Woods was taking the train from Frankfurt, Germany, to Passau and a ticket agent offered her a discount if she bought a Deutsche BahnCard.

It wasn’t. The terms on the card weren’t entirely clear, since she didn’t speak German. And after DB charged her $221, it kept billing her.

See, the BahnCard is a subscription service that automatically renews. And the German railway doesn’t take too kindly to people not paying its bills, even if you entered into a contract without fully understanding it.

This April, I received a letter from a collection agency in the Netherlands stating that Deutsche BahnCard has turned my account over to them for failure to pay the automatic renewal fee for the card. I was stunned!

I have excellent credit and always pay my bills. The application I signed at the train station was all in German, by the way, so I had no idea what it said or that I was signing up for a renewal each year. I would have never done that an most travelers wouldn’t either.

I sent the collection agency a letter with copies of my credit card account and explaining I had no knowledge of this and asking for them for an explanation. They sent a letter stating that when I purchased the BahnCard I also signed up for an automatic renewal yearly and those conditions were mentioned on the application (in German) and also on their web page in English.

Why would I ever go to their web page as all I was doing was signing for the card to get the discount for that one trip? I haven’t been back to Germany and would not have used the card or discount again anyhow.

The collection agency is asking me to pay the principal claim of 57 EUR Plus interest until August 27th of 2009 plus, 4 percent interest after that date and their collection fee for a grand total of 97 EUR! This is such an injustice as the agent never mentioned any reoccurring charges or annual renewal fees and I couldn’t read the application in German.

I checked with DB to get its side of the story. Bear with me — the official’s first language is not English:

We regret that Ms. Woods has no further interest in the BahnCard.

BahnCards are generally a subscription to be annually renewed. To cancel the subscription we need the notice of termination 6 weeks before expiration.

When she purchased the BahnCard, she signed up for an automatic yearly renewal service (subscription) according to our terms and conditions.

By ordering the BahnCard she has signed the order form which included the information about the automatic renewal next to the signature. Further the headline “Your BahnCard 25-/BahnCard 50-Abo” clearly indicates the subscription (Abonnement).

We can not accept the cancellation of the BahnCard, as it is not timely 6 weeks prior to the expiration date for the BahnCard existed.

Since we have not received the notice of termination in time we cancelled the BahnCard to the next possible date July 3rd 2009.

The BahnCard valid till July 3rd 2009 has been sent to you on time and does not return. So we have to assume that you received your BahnCard.

As we did not receive a notice of cancellation in time, the BahnCard for the subsequent period of validity was issued.

In the meantime the account was turned over to a collection agency since we received neither a response to our reminders nor the payment due.

This agency is acting on behalf of BahnCard-Service. This company is therefore authorized to use the customer data in order to collect the outstanding amount.

We see no way to cancel the collection procedure. Please contact the agency responsible for sending the encashment letter.

Well, OK. This looks like a cut-and-paste of the form letter they sent Woods, which is fine. And some of the dates are confusing too (did they mean to say 2009 or 2010?). Either way, it’s clear DB isn’t going to call off the dogs on this collection effort.

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Woods has two choices: Pay the fine or ignore it. Collection agencies typically drop efforts for small amounts, and it is by no means a certainty that this will lower her credit score. If past experience is a guide, it wouldn’t affect her ability to travel to Europe, either — in other words, they won’t issue an arrest warrant for her and nab her at the airport when she arrives.

One thing I’m sure of: The next time someone offers Woods a “deal” and asks her to sign a contract in a language she doesn’t understand, I bet she won’t. Neither should any self-respecting traveler.

(Photo: nicki alex/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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