Warning: Dangers of automatic bill pay & safer alternatives

No one likes paying bills (that I’m aware of?) — which is why automatic payments can be very appealing.

This is when you set up recurring transfers from your bank to pay your bills each month — phone bill, tuition, cable, utilities, mortgage or any other payments you owe on a regular basis.

A lot of people take advantage of this feature because it’s convenient, you don’t have to remember every bill and due date, you don’t have to visit several websites to get everything paid and you don’t risk forgetting to make the payments.

However, there are other risks involved that can lead to major financial problems. While recurring payments may be a great way to keep your payments on track and on time, there are safe ways — and unsafe ways — to do it.

You have two options with automatic/recurring payments:

  • You can set it up through your bank so that your bank initiates the payment each month,

  • or, you can allow the company access to your account to withdraw the money each month to cover your bill.

Most of the companies you do business with probably encourage you to sign up for automatic bill pay – many may even offer you some type of discount or reward.

But if you aren’t always on top of things (and even if you are), you need to know which methods are safe and which ones are not! Because one simple error could leave you with an empty bank account – on top of one hell of a fight to get your money back.

Dangers of automatic billing from checking or savings

Here’s how automated debit transactions work: you allow the company to deduct money from your checking or savings account each month by providing your routing and account numbers. The problem is, when you give authorization to regularly draft from an account, it is an open-ended arrangement, regardless of your contract with the company.

In one case involving a Florida health insurance company, customers’ accounts were drafted up to dozens of times when only one payment was supposed to go through. What’s worse is that when you authorize automatic debits transactions, a company could continue pulling money from your account even after your contract for the service has ended. And they have all the information they need to do so.

Another problem with automatic payments is that regardless of how much money is in your account, that charge is going through no matter what. So if you don’t have the funds in there, you’ll end up owing even more due to expensive overdraft fees and any other fees the company may charge.

Bottom line: automatic debit transactions, especially recurring ones, can easily cause unexpected withdrawals to be made from your account, which can potentially cause some major financial damage.

So let’s look at some safer alternatives.

Safe ways to automate & stay on top of monthly bills

1. Online bill pay: Automate monthly payments directly through your bank

This is different from authorizing companies to make automatic debit transactions from your account. Online bill pay is instead set up through your bank, which makes it a safer way to pay your bills electronically.

Here’s why: you don’t need to give your routing number and account number to anyone, because your bank initiates the transaction. That means your information is never provided to any third-party and therefore isn’t at risk. You are also in control of when the payments are made, since they’re done through your bank.

So you choose the amount to pay (based on the recurring monthly bill) and the date the payment is made. That way you know when to expect that specific amount to be withdrawn from your account — plus you’ll have peace of mind knowing that only one payment will go through. If there is an error, you’d much rather deal with your bank than a third-party company and your bank.

Make sure you have the funds available if the bill pay is set up through a checking account!

If you’re using a checking account to make the payments, set up an alert for before the date the payment is supposed to go through, that way you can be sure you have the funds available and avoid any overdraft charges.

2. Use a credit card

Many companies now accept credit card payments online (instead of only allowing debit transactions) — which is a much safer alternative for automating your bills.

Credit cards offer much better protections for you as a consumer, which is why you should always use a credit card (instead of a debit card or drafts from a savings account) for any payments that could potentially cause you problems — like online transactions.

You can set up automatic payments through your credit card to pay each bill before the due date each month.

Then if you see a suspicious charge, you can dispute it immediately — and the process of getting your money back is a lot easier than when you’re hit with false charges on a debit card.

If the charge pulls money directly from your checking, you could be out of a lot of cash — temporarily or even forever.

Here’s a breakdown of your protections with debit cards vs. credit cards.

With a credit card, if you’re hit by over-billing issues, fraudulent charges or other charges you did not authorize, no money leaves your hands. Once you report the error to the credit card company, the process of fixing the problem begins immediately.

When mistakes occur with checking and savings accounts, money does leave your hands — and it can take a while to get it back, and in some cases, you don’t get it back.

Plus, by using a credit card, you also get the added benefits of racking up more rewards!

Bonus tip: Even when automatic payments are set up on a credit card, it’s crucial that you review your statements for any potential errors or false charges. That way you can report it immediately.

3. Set reminders for when bills are due

Automatic payments can be convenient, but if you’re worried about the possibility of your accounts being over-drafted or false charges going through, there’s another way to help you stay on top of monthly bills.

Set reminders for yourself for a couple of days before each bill is due, and then right when that alert pops up, pay the bill online with a credit card at that moment! If you wait, you risk forgetting, which can lead to extra charges and damage to your credit score.

You can set alerts using your calendar on your phone, the reminders app or any other app you use to track your finances.

If you have to use a debit card, you can at least check your account to make sure you have enough funds to cover the payment — and then be sure to regularly check the account for any potential errors.

4. Set a reminder to pay your credit card bill BEFORE the closing date

When you pay off your credit card balance before the closing date, your statement will show a $0.00 balance due. Then when it’s reported to the credit bureaus, your account will show a zero balance, rather than whatever amount would have shown up on your statement. When the credit bureaus see that you’re using little to none of your available credit, it will help improve your credit score!

Important note: For reminders/alerts to work, you need to pay the bill, check your account or do whatever else the alert is for immediately when it pops up! That’s the best way to keep yourself on track and avoid any potential extra charges or fees etc.

Bonus tip!

The biggest factor that impacts your credit score is your payment history — whether you pay your bills on time. So when it comes to how you pay your monthly bills, you want to figure out a method works best for you so that your payments stay on track. This is the best way to improve your credit score and/or keep it in good standing.

To help you track all of your bills, expenses and overall financial life, we have a list of great apps to try in our Budgeting Guide.

Read more: 6 money tips for people who are unorganized or forgetful

Additional tips to secure your online bill payments

Doing a monthly, or even weekly, check-in of all of your finances is a great way to help you keep track of everything and make sure your money is protected. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Go through your statements: Find any automatic drafts that are coming out of your checking or savings accounts and discontinue them!

  • Paying bills on companies’ websites: Use a credit card, not a debit card, so you can dispute any potential false charges.

  • When you sign up for a new company: Only provide your credit card number for payments. That way you can dispute any bogus transactions that may pop up down the road.

You should also set up a daily alert that reminds you to check your bank accounts — to keep an eye on money coming in, money going out and to spot any false charges that may pop up. If that’s too much for you, then stick with that once-a-week time.

If you haven’t quite gotten in the habit of checking your accounts daily (which you should work on), then just know that charges could be going through without you even realizing it!