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Are you stuck with bigger-than-expected bar bill? Depends

By

Opening Credits
Columnist Erica Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Opening Credits,
I went out with a few friends and gave my card to the bartender for the tab. My friends and I ordered a lot of drinks. I got drunk and left my card at the bar, and when I went to pick it up the other day, I found out my bill was almost $360! That is wrong. I know we didn't drink that much. Do I have to pay? Thanks for helping. -- Aaron

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Aaron,
Ouch! I can imagine that overblown tab did some damage to an already painful hangover.

No one wants to pay for charges they didn't consent to, but just who might be responsible for the bill is a fascinating question. Let's review the players.

Your buddies. Is it really impossible that the lot of you didn't drink that much? You didn't specify the actual number of friends you went out with, but if there were of five of you and the evening included expensive shots of whisky with rounds of beers, then such a charge is within the realm of possibility. Or maybe a few members of your party were in a generous mood and treated some nice young women to cocktails.

Review the receipt -- which should have been presented to you when you picked up your card -- and try to recall the details of what went down that night. If the tab begins to make sense, I'm sure your friends will want to pay for their portion. Split the bill into equal portions and be done with it.

Random thirsty strangers. Another possibility is that some opportunistic people at the bar became aware that you had a running tab going and decided to add their drinks to it. Perhaps the strangers told the bartender, "Add this round to my friend's tab," and jabbed a thumb in your direction. Who knows, you could have even been in a jolly state of mind and nodded approvingly. Still, it's highly unlikely that you can track those people down and make them pay.

However, if you feel quite certain that your credit card bill was inflated due to drinks you and your group never ordered, you can dispute that part with the bar management. According to John Van Wyk, owner of Johnny V's, a watering hole located in San Jose, Calif., your predicament is common, and many bars are willing to help out a good patron and reduce the bill accordingly. If they say you're responsible, though, Van Wyk recommends you dispute the portion of the charge that isn't right wth the credit card company. It could be considered a fraudulent charge and you won't have to pay for it. In his experience, some companies are more compliant in these types of situations than others. "Amex will just handle it. If there is a discrepancy, they will cover it, but others aren't so liberal," says Van Wyk.  

The establishment. But is the bar management legally liable for the disputed portion of the bill? I asked attorney Patty Anderson, located in Richmond, Va., whether the establishment's owner can be required to pay for the charge in question. She was pretty dubious over your odds for success. You can take the matter to small claims court, says Anderson, and "if you could show where individual charges were made after you left then you can dispute those. Each of you would have to prove your case." The problem you'd face, though, is that you can't recall what happened, so how are you going to be able to testify about what you did or didn't order? Anderson's prediction: A judge will probably say, "Too bad. The bill is yours."

You. If you can't persuade any of the above to take on the price of that fateful night, that leaves you, Aaron. Because you put down your card, you are ultimately accountable for the charges your party rang up and need to pay for what you spent. Even if the entire affair falls into your lap, an important lesson can be learned from DWC (Drinking While Charging): The moment you begin to lose control of reason and memory, close out your tab and claim your card.

See related: How to dispute a credit card charge with a merchant

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Published: June 2, 2010


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