Company gets big payment by mistake, doesn't send it back

PLEASANT HILL, Calif. (KGO) -- An East Bay woman's bill pay sent the same payment to two companies. Here's why reversing the mistake was impossible.

If you're still paying bills with handwritten checks, you're in a dwindling group -- but you may be safer than the rest of us. Those online bill pay services are really handy, but it's easy to make a mistake and almost impossible to reverse it.

A remedy may involve contacting an overpaid creditor and hoping it will go to the trouble of sending your money back.

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That's what didn't happen for Carol Woodland of Pleasant Hill. Her bill pay accidentally sent a big payment to two different companies -- and the one that was overpaid just didn't return it.

"I was going into the hospital and I was trying to get my bills paid,'' she recalled. "I suppose it could've been my mistake."

Or, it could have been a hiccup in her bank's online bill pay service. She said the sequence on her bill pay might be to blame.

"American Express and AT&T are listed one right on top of the other,'' Woodland said.

If you use a bill pay, you know many of them display creditors in alphabetical order. Woodland's bill pay lists "American Express" right above "AT&T." And when she paid her American Express bill, the system, mysteriously, sent the exact same amount to the company listed below, AT&T.

"Thirteen-hundred-thirty-six dollars and 45 cents,'' Woodland said, citing the precise amount paid to both companies. It's a figure ingrained in her memory after weeks of trying to get it back. AT&T now had about 10 times more than she owed for her monthly bill.

"I immediately started trying to get my money back,'' she said.

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At first, AT&T told her it was no problem. She'd have it back in her account the next day.

She didn't.

"I kept calling and every time I called someone would tell me something different,'' Woodland said. "You'll get it tomorrow, you'll get it in 48 hours, you'll get it April 30, May something. It never happened."

For Woodland, it was serious. She lives on a fixed income, and had several big quarterly bills to pay. After weeks of trying to get that refund, friends called AT&T on her behalf.

"We finally got a guy named Pablo who said he'd be the one to refund the money. We said what makes you different than the other (AT&T representatives) and he said, because I'm Pablo." She laughed, but she didn't get that refund.

Instead, AT&T applied the big chunk of money to her account. Her bills showed a credit that whittled down with each passing month -- the money stuck there, seemingly, until she used it up.

"I was losing more than one night's sleep I'll tell you,'' Woodland recalls. "I had bills coming."

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Friends offered a loan. She thought of selling her savings bonds, which she relies on for a little income.

"Yes, I was scared. You think, 'What do I do now?' She paused. "Aha! Michael. 7 on Your Side."

She contacted ABC7 and the 7 On Your Side team contacted AT&T. Why didn't it reverse that payment?

AT&T responded right away by refunding her money, though it didn't say how customers can rectify these kinds of mistakes. In a statement, AT&T said:

"Our Customer Care team reached out to the customer, apologized, and refunded her account."

"I got my check. Back in the bank!" said an elated Woodland. "I think the world of you people who do this. It's so needed."

Click here for a look at more stories by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
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