Fight back!
Stop getting pushed around by insurance companies, airlines and other hulking corporations. We have your counterpunch.
By Ellen McGirt with Kate Ashford, George Mannes and Pat Regnier, MONEY Magazine

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - "It was like something out of Kafka," says Jim Mensching, a physician in Cohasset, Mass. He's talking about a customer service nightmare.

All he needed was the written confirmation that he had paid his car loan so he could get a new title. But his finance company couldn't produce it -- Mensching had recently moved house, then refinanced, sending the Bureaucratic Disaster Meter into the red zone. "It's like it was nobody's job to fix my problem."

He spent two months spelunking the depths of the bank and the DMV, until he finally found...the person whose job it was.

Helplessness and rage are a dangerous combination. Mensching's problem was pretty minor compared with those involving, for example, your health or retirement. That's where the real rage comes in. Say you're on the phone with your insurer complaining about a mammoth $1,400 error on your medical bill. They pull their Goliath bureaucracy routine, claiming there's nothing they can do but that you should try calling this number, which turns out to no longer be in service.

You're left standing in the kitchen like a fool, clutching your bill, staring wide-eyed at nothing, so helpless and so fuming mad that you just want to eat your phone.

That's when you gotta outsmart 'em. In every industry, there's a gem of knowledge that will help you signal to even the most obdurate bureaucrat that you know how the game is played. Learn the basic rules governing any noble fight against a big company. Then apply them to whatever behemoth you're fending off.

The basics

1. Know the rules and speak the language. This is the most important. Before you dial 800-anything, try to understand how the industry you're fighting operates. This will keep you a step ahead of the "service" provider.

2. Acquire the basic weapon of the modern red tape warrior: the paper trail. "Each company a consumer deals with has its own culture. Some are going to be better than others at dealing with problems," says Bob Hunter of the Consumer Federation of America.

You, however, have to be on top of your game each time. Document the original problem, of course, but also chronicle any hassle in trying to fix it.

3. Write a killer letter. And, more to the point, get it into the hands of the right people. The sooner you alert a supervisor or investigator, the better off you'll be. Most companies have a 30- or 60-day window for handling consumer complaints, particularly when it comes to cash-related issues like credit-card disputes or mysteriously inaccurate account balances.

4. Seek a higher power. Tattle. Rat. Take it to the top. If you've spent more time navigating customer service channels than seems reasonable -- or you realize that you no longer have dedicated, sentient beings working your case -- it's time to get someone with a big stick to move things along.

But to do that effectively, you'll need to know where to go and what to ask for. To find out the where and the what, keep reading.

More: Hospital billing nightmares Top of page

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