Avoid paying extra fees to pay your bills

LOS ANGELES Even when it is allowed, some consumer advocates say it's not right and consumers should fight back.

Jessica Aguiar thought picking up the phone to make her mortgage payment directly with her bank would be no problem, until the company tried to hit her in the check book with an extra fee.

"They said it would be $20, and I really was just a little bit angry and shocked," said Aguiar.

Jessica's mortgage company is one of many businesses now making money by charging customers to pay their bills over the phone and even online. It's referred to as "paying to pay."

"If they're charging me to speak to a customer service representative that I'm already speaking with, I think that's ridiculous," Aguiar said.

A recent survey found that banks, utility providers, phone and cable companies are hitting customers with fees ranging from $1.99 to $25 for paying over the phone and for using the company's site to pay online.

"It's just unacceptable that businesses charge you a fee for the privilege of paying for the service that you're already paying [for]," said Ed Mierzwinski of USPIRG.

It may be unacceptable, but it is legal for mortgage, utility, phone and cable companies to charge you to pay by phone or online.

However, when it comes to credit card companies, it's illegal to charge a fee for paying unless you're asking a customer service representative for an expedited payment.

"Under the law, they can charge a fee if it's for an immediate posting or an almost immediate posting and there's a customer representative involved," said Nessa Feddis of American Bankers Association.

Yet, undercover calls made to some banks that issue credit cards revealed that some still aren't following the law. One bank told Eyewitness News that anytime you make a payment with a representative, it's $10.

This is wrong. Banks can only charge for last-minute payments. The American Bankers Association didn't want to comment on those particular cases but says the fee covers the cost of doing business.

"The fee is intended to help cover the cost of the workers' wages and benefits. Frankly $10 doesn't sound like a lot when you think about how it's probably 10 or 15 minutes for that customer rep," explained Feddis.

Consumer advocates balk and say most businesses and credit card companies have reps on duty 24/7, so paying last-minute shouldn't cost more.

"The bank always had those people working on the phones, and if they're not collecting payments they're trying to sell something else," said Mierzwinski.

How can you avoid paying to pay? Pay early with a check or directly online through your bank's bill-pay service. That way, you don't have to enlist extra help or fees for a last-minute payment.

If you feel you were wrongly charged a fee by your credit card company and would like information on how to file a complaint with banking regulators, you should contact the Office of the Comptroller of Currency.

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