Who knew Costa Rican food could be so expensive?

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Randy Brachman is shocked when his $16 lunch bill turns into a $1,608 bill at a Costa Rican restaurant. Can he get his money back?


Question: Last March, my wife and I had lunch at a small restaurant called Restaurante AromaTico in Tilaran, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Our two lunches cost us $16.08. After some confusion at the register over which credit card they accepted, and whether to charge U.S. dollars or Costa Rican colones, I paid with my Chase Visa credit card.

When we got the credit card statement I saw that we had been charged $1,608 instead of $16.08. I immediately realized I had confabulated the dollars and colones when I signed for the charge.

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For over a year, we have been trying to work this out through our tour company in Costa Rica, Costa Rica Sun Tours. The restaurant owner continuously says he will return the overcharge, but does not.

Our bank accepted our dispute of the charge, but since the receipt was signed by me, was unable to obtain a return of our money. I did sign the receipt for $1,608, but it was clearly a mistake, as a meal at this restaurant costs between $7 and $12. We have long since paid the credit card bill.

In the past year, the president of Costa Rica Sun Tours has made innumerable calls to the restaurant owner on our behalf. The owner first denied any obligation on his part, then spent some time denying he had been paid by our bank.

In October, he found out from the owner’s bank that the funds from our credit card payment had been received, but impounded due to a local tax matter. The owner said he was unaware of the embargo on his account related to a Social Security Tax issue. In January, the owner finally agreed to pay us back over time. No funds have appeared in our account.

Can you help us get our money back? — Randy Brachman, Arroyo Grande, Calif.

Answer: Your purchase should have been protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), which allows you to contest a math error like a misplaced decimal point, whether you signed your bill or not.

So why didn’t it? The FCBA has several important exclusions related to the timing of your dispute, the location of the dispute, and the manner in which you can challenge your bill. But given that a year has already passed, the time to invoke the FCBA has come and gone. Your local contact has run out of options, which leaves us with your bank, Chase.

Ah, Chase. The last time a Chase representative needed to talk to me about one of my stories, I called him within minutes. I assumed he’d return the favor by at least replying to my query about your case. I was wrong.

I tried several times to get in touch with Chase. Finally, a representative sent me a brief email advising that it had contacted you, wouldn’t offer any details, and that “consumers should always closely review receipts, invoices and documents before signing them.”

Thanks, Mr. Obvious.

I also tried to contact Visa to see if it could assist you. Another dead end, at least as of today.

The more interesting question is: How could this have been prevented? Well, Visa and Chase may be everywhere you want them to be, but that doesn’t mean you want to use them everywhere. I would have considered using cash for a small purchase like lunch. I receive too many horror stories from consumers about questionable credit card bills received at bars, cantinas and restaurants south of the border.

If you’d filed a formal dispute with Chase, invoking the FCBA, within the time allowed by the law, I think this might have gone differently. Instead, it appears you chose to work directly with the merchant and a third party to settle this matter. That’s not a bad strategy, but I might have also considered a dispute, just in case the mediation doesn’t work.

Next time I’m in Costa Rica, I’ll also avoid the Restaurante AromaTico. I’m sure you will.

Should the Restaurante AromaTico keep Randy Brachman's money?

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