Tripping on Legends

Standing at the Crossroads…

The Bill for Nothing

One of the most frustrating aspects of computers is trying to get a bill paid or have someone answer a question on the phone. We make our way through automated phone directories like mice in mazes looking for cheese. It’s something we’ve all experienced, and this makes it the perfect situation for a good urban legend to be born.

One such urban legend had its birth in Massachusetts. The story is said to have happened in Newton, Massachusetts in the early nineties, just as computers were gaining their foothold over our lives. A man opened a new account with a credit card company, but before it could use it, he received a bill for $0.00. Not thinking much about it, he threw the bill away and placed the card in his wallet. The next month he received another bill for $0.00.

He showed the bill to his friends who all got a good laugh out of it. They suggested he go buy something to get a real balance, but when the man went to the store the next day, his card was declined. Assuming there had to be some error, he called the company to see what was wrong with his account. He spent thirty minutes on the phone, but was only able to reach an automated system. A friendly but prerecorded voice told him a balance of $0.00 was due on his card and because it had yet to been paid his account was on hold.

The man immediately cut up the card and decided to get another. The next month he received a notice from the original card company telling him his $0.00 was now in collection and refusal to pay would affect his credit. He smiled as he thought of how to beat the company and wrote a check out for $0.00 and sent it out.

A few days later the man received a call from the bank. They had received his check, but because it was for $0.00 it had caused there whole system to crash and they had lost all the transactions that day. They would be charging his account for making their computers crash and they would not honor the check.

The man paid the bank fees, and the next month he received a bill from his credit card company saying he owed $0.00 and that the account was now in the hands of a collection agency.

While this story does not have the chill factor of other urban legends involving ghostly hitchhikers, homicidal babysitters or college stalkers, it says as much about what we fear on a daily basis. The story draws us in because of its exaggeration of a situation that aggravates all of us. No one gets hurt it this tale, except of course for the man’s credit scores, but its effect tells us about our society.

Since its first appearance in 1992, the story has been told countless times, sometimes taking place in Massachusetts and other times in other states and locations. Credit card companies say they would never send a bill for a zero balance, never mind allow it to get in collection. But there are other elements to the story that show it as an urban legend.

The original tale named the city as Newtown, which is a misspelling of the suburb. In later stories it is referred to as a town outside Boston or as the correctly spelled Newton.
In the tale, there is no name given to the credit card company or the man who acts as the hero of the story, a sure sign of a legend in the making. The story has also appeared in other places, giving it a more universal appeal and adding details to the lore. In one story that takes place in Australia, the man actually brings the company to court and wins a big settlement. The story has appeared in columns, newspaper articles and talk shows, but the facts have never been confirmed.

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