Tuesday, July 27, 1999

How can you fix a broken credit card?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is not about my mother, although that's the way it started.

        A year ago, Mom got one of those credit card calls, offering to update her Visa card to platinum. She politely thanked the young man — she thought he sounded young — because that's what people of her generation do, for the most part. They remember their manners, even if some stranger is intruding on their privacy with the offer of goods and services they do not want or need.

        And she said no.

        Then he offered to just “make sure our records on you are current.” At least, that is my mother's recollection. Since she can recollect with absolute fidelity what my Aunt Patty told her about my cousin Jeff's new house and how much he paid for it and what the seller said about the neighbors, I believe her.

Anatomy of a mess
        The caller asked her to give him the last four numbers of her Social Security number. He already had her address and account number. And he told her he was working for Bank One, which is where she does most of her banking and is where she got the credit card she uses. So she did.

        Big mistake.

        A couple of weeks later, she received a new credit card in the mail with the promise that she would now “get the extra buying power of a Visa at 12 million locations around the world.” Since she was not planning to go around the world or come anywhere near 12 million locations, she filed the card and the sheaf of information that came with it.

        A couple of months later, she tried to use her Visa card — her old one that she has had for years — to pay for a sweater. The clerk told her the card had been reported stolen and she should go to her bank and get it straightened out.

        Which she did. I mean the going to the bank part. Not the straightening out part. A year later, my mother is still receiving letters alternately threatening to ruin her credit and offering “free rewards” to her as a “valued cardmember.” She has made many, many telephone calls to many, many people who have promised to sort this out, but who never do.

        I kept telling her to ignore the threats, the letters.

        This is not the way her generation operates. And, in fact, she has no doubt complicated matters by making a couple of payments that she does not believe she owed. She would rather write a check than be considered a deadbeat.

Shameful business
        “Taking advantage of the elderly is a booming business,” says Jennifer Detwiler from the Ohio attorney general's Office. Not because they are dotty or muddled, but “because they grew up when business was done with a handshake.” Well, I challenge you to find a hand to shake these days. You're lucky if you can get a human being on the telephone.

        When I talked to Bill Teats with the Ohio Department of Commerce, which regulates banks, his advice was: “Call, call, call, call, call until you get somebody to listen to you.” So I did, bouncing from one department to another. Finally, Muriel in customer services told me that she thought maybe the problem stemmed from an $82 “consolidation fee.” She was pretty sure that if I got my mother to write a letter to their correspondence department that they could straighten this out.

        Instead I started placing calls to the bank, identifying myself as a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer. Soon, I am talking to Dave Webster, first vice president of corporate affairs for First USA, which is Bank One's credit card subsidiary.

        I'll bet Dave will be able to clear up this mess in no time. My mother probably will get a very nice letter, possibly an adjustment. But I hope Dave is wondering how to fix it so that people whose records are not as complete as my mother's and who maybe are dug in a little too deep in the credit department anyway and who do not have a big-mouthed daughter who works for a newspaper can be protected from “nice young men” on the telephone.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.