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Beacon Senior News

Autopay is great, unless you go on autopilot

Mar 02, 2020 02:22PM ● By Karen Telleen-Lawton

Autopay is a lovely feature for those of us who are getting forgetful (or have always been). Scheduling payment of your recurring bills makes sure your bills get paid on time, which can be a big boost to your credit score. Plus, you don’t have to think about it while you’re traveling. As with anything you put on automatic, however, it can trip you up if you’re not paying attention.

A cautionary tale

It started two years ago when our home was burglarized. For the burglar, the haul was pretty dismal: an aging computer and a few credit cards. No cash, no drugs, no jewels. For my husband and me, the financial pain was annoying but below our high insurance deductible. However, the administrative pain we later experienced was enormous and continues despite the fact that our identities were not stolen.

After we replaced the passwords, the computer, credit cards and changed bank accounts, we moved on with our lives.

That is, until last month when we inexplicably lost all water pressure. Living in the foothills, our water pressure is frustratingly variable, so I ignored it until the evening. Then I encountered a pathetic dribble from the shower faucet, forcing me to realize something was wrong. We walked around outside in the dark listening for leaks. Everything was quiet.

We took army showers and went to bed hoping the problem would resolve itself. We’d been traveling frequently, so I thought that perhaps we missed a notice of a planned shutoff.

When we woke up in the morning, we still had no water pressure. We finally called the water hotline. That’s when we found out the water had been turned off for non-payment of our bill. Excuse me?

I’ll skip the details of multiple phone calls and my rush down to city hall to pay. When we unearthed the errant bill, received the week before our shut-off, it did not list any “past due charges.” The bill showed “Payment - Thank You” plus one anomaly “administrative charges” neatly tucked into the list of “current charges due.”

Later, we found the definition of administrative charges in tiny print on the back of the bill: “returned check.” No warning, no big red letters, nothing indicating that we were facing a shut-off. The city supposedly mailed a separate letter stating our water would be shut off if we didn’t pay within 10 days. We have yet to find that letter.

The city staff that helped us through this process was courteous. One person suggested that we might be experiencing the same problem as other rejected autopay customers who had recently changed bank information over the last couple of years.

Autopay, yes. Autopilot, no.

We’ve been on autopay for decades, so we don’t focus on our bill’s amount due. Instead, we tear open the envelope to check on our water usage. We look to see whether we improved this year for that month or check for evidence of a leak.

It turns out that the city was still using our pre-burglary bank account number. Our bank honored it for 18 months before finally rejecting it. I’d like to change city policy, but as they say, “You can’t fight city hall.” So instead I’ve created my own policy changes:

  1. Keep a list of every company you have on autopay, including contact information.
  2. When you change credit cards, proactively inform companies of any changed information. This includes when your card expires and when you get a card with a new expiration date.
  3. Consider signing up for overdraft protection. This feature draws from your savings or a line of credit if an automated expense exceeds your balance.
  4. Even when you’re on autopay, open each bill and see whether it meets your expectations. In other words, when you’re on autopay don’t go on autopilot.

Just as I finished drafting our simple new personal bill policy, the water came back on. I took a shower in the middle of the day and enjoyed every minute of it. Mindful of the next bill, I still kept it to five minutes.