Watch for 'Gray Charges'

There are many reasons you should be checking your credit and debit card statements each month to monitor your expenses, and spotting ‘gray charges’ is one of them.

Gray charges are expenses you may have forgotten about, or surprise charges that might have been deceptively tied to another offer you signed up for. They can also include accidental overcharges and double-billings.

Many of these charges come from ‘free trial’ offers or things such as subscriptions that automatically roll over when they are due, according to research released by BillGuard, a company that monitors credit card usage.

And while these charges are usually legitimate, at times they are somewhat deceptive. This is because there are some businesses that rely on you to forget to cancel an offer before costs kick in,  or not reading the fine print when you purchase something.

While you can try to fight gray charges, it’s better to avoid these costs in the first place.

Here are some tips to protect yourself

- Beware of ‘free trial’ offers. Red lights should flash in your head if something is ‘free’ but a business wants your credit or debit card information at the time you sign up.

Read the terms closely. Is there a cost once the trial ends? How much is it? How can you avoid it?

Remember that ‘free’ usually is just a way to turn you into a paying customer.

- When purchasing a product, always read the fine print and look for boxes that might automatically be checked.

Look for hidden fees, conditions or service charges, and be sure there isn’t another offer tied to your purchase, such as a magazine or video subscription, future product shipments, or an extended warranty plan.

- When you subscribe to something, check for automatic renewals and to see if you’re starting at a reduced fee … because you could be paying much more at renewal time.

Often, subscriptions made online will auto-renew until you cancel them, and you need to keep an eye on cost creep – higher charges from one billing to another. Be aware of what you expected to pay and how to cancel a subscription if necessary.

- Use a calendar to keep track of when ‘free’ trials end … and be sure to keep details of how to cancel an offer before charges begin.

Having a good filing system to keep track of due dates, costs and contracts will help you keep track of fees and the businesses you are dealing with.

Can you fight the charges?

It pays to be aware of these costs before you get hit with them because they can be hard to dispute if they were part of the written terms you agreed to.

But you do have options.

If you truly feel there has been a billing mistake or that you have been deceived or defrauded, contact the business and explain why you’re contacting them. Make sure to have evidence which proves your contention. Ask to have the charges reversed, or for an immediate cancellation so you won’t have to pay again.

If that doesn’t work, lodge a detailed dispute with your card issuer for charges you are sure you didn’t initiate.

Remember, the key to avoiding gray charges is knowing what you are getting into at the start.