GARLAND Mike Johnston of Garland knew his gas bill this month was going to be higher. He has been running the heater a lot during this unusually cool spring.

But it wasn't $537.50 cold!

That's how much Johnston said Atmos Energy charged to his credit card for his monthly bill on Monday.

"I stopped and stared at it for a little bit," Johnston said in disbelief.

Nearly 40,000 Atmos customers who are set up to pay automatically were subject to that same blank stare after their accounts were mistakenly drafted for an amount exactly ten times their actual bill.

Atmos explains its payment processor placed the decimal in the wrong spot.

On Monday night, the company assured customers the decimal was back where it belongs, but refunds were still in the pipeline, according to Atmos spokeswoman Jennifer Ryan.

"It might be 24-72 hours, but you will get your money back, and those overdraft fees will be paid," she pledged, adding: "That will happen."

"I think we all just learned a very big lesson with what just happened," said financial expert Cathy DeWitt Dunn of Addison-based DeWitt & Dunn.

She doesn't usually advise clients to just "charge it," but DeWitt Dunn insists that for automatic payments you should always use a credit card in case a mistake is made.

"When you use a debit card, that money is gone out of your account," she said. "You can't go recapture that tonight."

DeWitt Dunn said debit card drafts are relatively unprotected by law. "With credit cards, there is federal law to back you up," she said, adding that credit card companies will suspend contested charges and investigate them for you. The caveat is, if you charge recurring payments to a credit card, you should pay the card off monthly so you don t accumulate debt.

However you pay, DeWitt Dunn advises everyone to check their financial accounts weekly... or better yet, every day.


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