Oh how I loathe thee, Billing Dispute Department

It’s unusual for me to see charges I don’t recognize on my credit card bill, and even then, it’s usually something my wife bought — or that I bought and the vendor name shows up as something unusual. Therefore, when I saw a charge I didn’t recognize from “Silicon Solar,” I took the step of actually calling Silicon Solar, to see if, in fact, I’d ordered anything or if they did business under another name.

Silicon Solar had no orders or history under my name, or anything remotely like it, so I filled out the paperwork to register a billing dispute with Washington Mutual. You can’t just tell them about it, you have to fill out a form — one that you have to call and have mailed to you. A pain in the butt, but it’s an acceptable level of bureaucracy. Washington Mutual issued a “temporary credit” that appeared on my next bill.

While I was in Canada, a letter came in that the merchant had responded, and they wanted “more information” from me. I called them — in an of itself a feat, because they provided an 800- number only reachable from the U.S., and declined to give any other way of reaching them — like a regular phone number, fax, etc. The letter didn’t say much else other than “call us!”

The representative on the phone said the merchant had responded, and that they needed more information from me. “What did they respond?” I asked.

“We don’t have access to that, we’ll mail it to you,” said the representative.

“Well, what exactly do you want me to do?” I asked. “Nothing has changed, and I have no new information.”

“Nothing,” said the representative. “You’ll receive the merchant’s response from us, along with a questionnaire to fill out. Send that back.”

“Fine,” I said.

The next thing I receive is a letter from Washington Mutual with the Silicon Solars’ response. This is alone galling: it’s a printout from DHL of a box being delivered to Venezuela, and a print out of an order by some guy named Javier Toyo, along with his address in Venezuela. A cover page by Silicon Solar is attached, that says “the cardholder ordered, paid for, and received all merchandise as they’ve requested without any indication of a problem.”

Obviously I take issue with the word “cardholder” in the above.

Worse, the cover letter from Washington Mutual says “We conducted an investigation of this charge based on the information available to us and concluded that we are unable to pursue this dispute further on your behalf.” What?

It goes on, “We have not received a response from you as previously requested.”

What? Apparently calling them wasn’t good enough. Which is strange, because that’s all the previous letter asked me to do — and I did. And, when I asked specifically if there’s anything else I should do or send, I was told, no, wait for the merchant’s response.

I called right away, but since it’s a Saturday, the billing dispute department wasn’t open, so I talked to the fraud department. Fraud fits the bill anyway, since I assume that somebody making unauthorized charges to my account is, in fact, fraud. They can’t help, since “it was originally entered as a billing dispute.” Huh? This implies that when you see an unauthorized charge on your account, you should somehow know that it’s fraudulent — or that you shouldn’t dispute it? Beats me, it makes no damned sense, but I also make no headway. The fraud department refuses to reverse the charge — and, strangely, also refuses to cancel my card. Yes, that seems utterly bizarre; I suspect whoever was on the phone just gave up and started lying to me.

Monday rolls around, and I talk to somebody from the actual Billing Dispute Department. As they are trained to be, they’re pleasant, but completely powerless to actually do anything. Apparently there’s some kind of rule written in stone that says that a customer may not, under and circumstances, talk to anybody actually capable of dealing with anything. That power is in the hands of a select few, who are not directly reachable under any circumstances. The best I can get is a voice mail box.

I try a couple more times — in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have bothered, but I’m not happy at all with the response — or, more accurately, lack thereof. None of the first line wankages can do anything but tell me they understand my frustration, and reiterate the point that they’re not capable of doing anything.

On the plus side, calling them up and being a major pain in the ass does seem to have finally paid off in that the manager called, probably much, much sooner than the 24-48 hours I was told I would have to wait. It’s worth pointing out that there’s a huge difference between being a pain in the ass, where you calmly restate your case and refuse to take “no” for an answer, and being an abusive jerk, where you yell or insult the poor people answering the phone. For the most part, it’s not their fault, even though most need a great deal of persuasion to walk off their scripts and actually try to do something. I know enough about support and customer service organizations to know that the front lines is a dismal place to be, and that manager’s aren’t available at a moment’s notice to take the call of every whining bastard who doesn’t like the answer he’s given — and if your case truly does require a higher standard of care and attention, it’s hard to make the point.

At any rate, the manager finally did call back, and upon her review, she decided to issue a “courtesy credit.” Essentially, they can’t charge the merchant back (which would have been the right thing to do) because they let too much time lapse. Washington Mutual clearly screwed up by not providing me a form or some kind of response, since they fall under Visa’s chargeback rules, and without a response had to take Silicon Solar’s response at its ludicrous face value. So, Washington Mutual can’t get their money back from Silicon Solar, and they’re certainly not getting any money from me for this debacle.

Today’s cost of bureaucracy and incompetence: $99.30. But let’s look at the scorecard:

Washington Mutual: LOSS — Out $99.30 and a customer. I don’t trust a bank who lets merchants get away without, oh, the card number or name or anything matching the actual transaction. It’s just begging for something worse to happen.

Silicon Solar: WIN — Although I may never order anything from them, they got a paid order and a happy customer in Venezuela, despite apparently sloppy verification procedures.

Javier Toyo: WIN — Free stuff shipped to Venezuela? Oh hell yes, it’s a good day. God knows where he got my credit card number, his obviously false name isn’t as obvious outside of Venezeula. Due to idiocy all around, his chances of getting caught are approximately zero. It sure explains a few things about losses in the credit industry.

Me: DRAW — At the end of the day, I’m not out money for stuff I didn’t order, which is neutral at best. I don’t have to adhere to Visa’s rules, and I retain the option to just… not pay Washington Mutual, which I would certainly do if not for the “courtesy credit.” This courtesy keeps them out of the courts, I suppose, but I’m not under any illusion that they’re doing me a favor, and I spent several hours on this crap that I never should have had to.