Mark Lennihan  /  AP file
But can a merchant charge you a service fee for using a credit card or debit card?
By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/6/2006 6:29:07 PM ET 2006-03-06T23:29:07

We all have to pop into a convenience store every now and again to get a carton of milk or some coffee. But some readers are wondering can such stores charge a fee to customers who use their debit or credit cards for such small purchases.

There are many convenience stores that charge small fees for using a debit or credit card when customers do not spend a certain dollar amount. For example, one store said they would charge me $0.75 if I used my Visa debit card to buy a soda, because I did not spend enough. I told the store clerk that she cannot impose a minimum purchase requirement when I used my Visa card and she simply laughed at me. Or was I wrong?
Keiko C.

You are correct. Merchants accepting Visa or MasterCard credit or debit cards are not allowed to set a minimum amount for using the card; that is a violation of the merchant agreement.

"People want to use their cards for smaller ticket transactions,” MasterCard’s Barbara Coleman tells me, and the credit card companies want to make sure they can.

Even so, as you found out, some stores try to impose a limit. What can you do? In your case, you can report the merchant to the financial institution that issued your Visa card.

You raised another interesting question. Can a merchant charge you a service fee for using a credit card or debit card? There is no federal regulation that prohibits this. The law that prohibited a surcharge on credit card purchases expired back in 1984. Both Visa and MasterCard allow a merchant to offer a discount to customers who pay by cash or check, but  in most cases they say, a merchant cannot charge more for putting it on plastic -- that would be a violation of the merchant agreement. I've asked the credit card companies for specific information about when an exception to this surcharge rule is permitted and I hope to write more about that in a future column.

Note: This service fee rule does not cover paying your federal income tax by credit card. A “convenience charge” is permitted on these tax payment transactions.

I bought a DVD burner for my computer about a month and a half ago from an online retailer. It was defective and the company had me return it for a refund. They acknowledged receiving it and sent me e-mails saying that a credit had been approved, but it’s been more than a month and the credit is still not posted to my credit card account. What resources are open to me?
Burton S.

While patience is a virtue, you should have gotten that credit by now. According to Carol Reynolds at the Federal Trade Commission, if a merchant accepts the return of property and agrees to give you a credit, “the merchant is required to send that credit information to the credit card company within 7 business days of acceptance.” Federal regulations give the credit card company another 3 business days to post that credit to your account.

What can you do? Contact the merchant and let them know that if the credit isn’t posted to your account right away, you will challenge the original charge as a “billing error” with your credit card company. Your monthly credit card statement explains how to do that. To protect your rights, you need to make that complaint in writing – even if you start the process on the phone. You might also want to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.

My cell phone contract is almost up and I want to switch carriers. Do any of the major carriers offer better service or are they all about the same?
Leonard B.

Acording to Consumer Reports magazine’s annual cell phone survey released in January, wireless service across the country is poor and not getting any better. Based on responses from 39,000 subscribers in 17 cities, the editors say wireless customers are having "chronic, major problems with service, billing and complaint handling with every national wireless carrier."

Only 45 percent of those who responded to the survey were completely or very satisfied with their cell phone service. Nearly 70 percent of those who use a cell phone frequently said they had at least one dropped call in the week before the survey.

Here’s the most important thing to do when choosing a new wireless service – ask about the free trial period. Most carriers now give you about two weeks (it may be longer in some states) to try out the phone. If you return the phone in good condition before the trial period ends, you can terminate the service without an early termination fee. You’ll only have to pay for the actual charges you incurred using the phone.

During that trial period test the phone where you’d normally use it – at home, at work, at your kid’s school. If the service isn’t good, take the phone back and cancel the service. Just don’t be late. Once the trial period ends you’ll be charged a hefty fee if you try to cancel before the end of the contract.

Consumer Reports has a step-by-step guide to choosing cell phone service on its Web site.

I've had a bill collector call 8 times in one day about my husband’s account, and when I asked them to stop calling they said only he could make that request. He is not home during their business hours and the payment was only a couple days late!!! We must have rights as to when we can say enough is enough! And how many times they can call in a day or a week!
Shauna W.

Bill collectors have a tough job, so they don’t give up easily. But federal law - the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act – limits what collectors can do. For instance, debt collectors cannot call you before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. (in the time zone where you live, not where they work!), unless you agree. They cannot tell lies, use obscenity, profane language, or “repeatedly use the telephone to annoy someone."

The law also spells out what you must do to make a debt collector stop calling – just saying “go away” on the phone is not good enough. The debtor (in this case that would be your husband) needs to put that request in writing. Once the collector receives your letter, the only contact they can have with you is to tell you that there will be no further contact or to let you know that they or the creditor plan to take some specific action.

Remember, if you actually owe money, this “leave-me-alone” letter does not make the debt go away. As the Federal Trade Commission points out on its Web site, “the consumer could still be sued by the collector or by the original creditor."

For more information on your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, including what a debt collector can and cannot do, go to the FTC Web site.

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