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International travelers: A check may be in the mail

Refunds ranging from $18.04 to thousands of dollars are being sent to roughly 10 million consumers who used MasterCard, Visa or Diners Club credit and debit cards while traveling abroad between Feb. 1, 1996, and Nov. 8, 2006.

The checks are from the settlement of a class-action suit that alleged those card companies and several of their issuing banks overcharged and inadequately informed users about the extra fees tacked onto purchases abroad. The fees, usually 1% to 3% of the charged amount, have long annoyed many business travelers.

The refunds were a long time coming. The $336 million settlement was approved in October 2009. But nearly a dozen appeals had to be resolved before the funds could be handed out.

“Nobody is happy about the length of time it took,” says Merrill Davidoff, co-lead counsel on the case. “But we’re gratified we finally got some of these overcharges to approximately 10 million consumers who we alleged were unjustifiably charged these fees,”

The lawsuit has led to changes by credit card companies and banks.

“Now the fees are much better disclosed,” Davidoff says, “and if consumers shop around, they can find cards that don’t charge a fee at all or a lower fee.”

So far, at least 7 million people have received checks, with the current batch making its way to recipients on the East Coast, Davidoff says.

Jennifer Welch, a flight attendant who has homes in Maui and Hillsborough, Calif., is one who has gotten a check, though she didn’t even remember that she’d filed a claim prior to the deadline of May 30, 2008.

“The $18 I received was a small sum,” she says, “however receiving unexpected money in the mail is always a good thing, especially during the holidays.”

Barry Maher’s refund was far less than the hundreds of dollars in overseas transaction fees he pays in any given year. But it still felt satisfying, he says.

“You know when you’re taking those fees you’re paying ridiculous amounts, and when you see it on the credit card it’s always really irritating,” says Maher, a motivational speaker who lives in Corona, Calif. “But when the money came back, it still felt good. You weren’t ripped off quite as badly as you thought you were.”

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