Dear Consumer Action:
I had an MRI almost five years ago, and had a primary insurer and Medicare. Both paid on the bill. Now I have been billed for a balance of $368, after five years! This is the first I have heard of any balance.
Is this legal to bill someone for a medical procedure five years after the fact? - L.H., Manahawkin
The bill is a mistake, said a spokesperson for the billing agency that sent it to you. She said your account shows a zero balance, and she will send you a letter stating you owe nothing, for your records.
She said data about someone else's account somehow got put into your electronic records, making it look like you suddenly had a $368 balance after almost five years of inactivity.
Had there actually been a balance on your account (unlikely since you went to an in-network provider, and your insurance wouldn't have allowed for balance billing beyond your deductible), the debt would still be collectable under New Jersey law.
The statute of limitations runs out in New Jersey after six years for most debts. Even after that period, a creditor has the right to try to collect a debt. But if the creditor files suit and the debtor shows up in court to assert his rights under the statute of limitations, the suit will likely be dismissed.
For debtors, it's important to know that you must not make any payments on debts older than six years, or the clock starts again on the statute of limitations. Also, if you are sued, don't ignore it! If you don't show up in court, the creditor could get a judgment, which carries its own 14-year statute of limitations.
$7 for 'free' report?
Dear Consumer Action:
Last week I called one of the three main credit bureaus to order my free credit report. After answering all the questions on the automated program, it asked what credit card I wished to use to pay. It would cost about $7. At that point I hung up.
How can they say it's free at the beginning of the conversation, and then charge for it? - R.D., Villas
The Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to use the centralized Web site and phone number, set up by the three major credit bureaus, for ordering free credit reports. It is the Annual Credit Report Request Service, available at www.annualcreditreport.com, and the phone is 877-322-8228.
Note that the word "free" is not in the address. There is a heavily advertised for-profit company that uses the word "free" but charges. Don't contact that one!
The FTC specifically tells consumers not to call individual credit bureaus any longer for free reports. The individual Web sites and phone systems of the credit bureaus are set up to sell other services. They are for-profit businesses, so that's understandable, as long as there is an alternate way to order a free report.
If you go through the central site, no paid services will be offered, so there will be no way to make a mistake in the phone system. You probably somehow hit a button to order your credit score or some other report, when you called the company directly.
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Consumer Action will respond to each properly submitted letter about a problem or question, either in this column or by letter or phone. Letters must include copies - not originals - of all relevant documentation and a name, address and phone number at which you can be reached. Send letters to: Consumer Action, The Press, 11 Devins Lane, Pleasantville, NJ 08232.
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