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Getting a straight answer from customer service

The folks answering a credit card's 800 number are supposed to help customers. That's why it's called customer service.

But it doesn't always work that way. A customer service rep can also steer you wrong with incorrect or conflicting information. That's when your work begins.

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Just ask William and Jennifer Lin of San Jose.

No means, uh, maybe
Five times Jennifer Lin asked Citibank customer service reps if she would be charged a foreign currency conversion fee for using a Citibank credit card overseas. Five times she was told "no."

Then, during a European tour in summer 2000, Jennifer Lin made identical purchases in a Swiss jewelry shop on her SalomonSmithBarney platinum Visa card from Citibank USA and a Bank of America Visa card. She was charged identical amounts on her credit card bills.

Here's the rub. A Bank of America rep told Lin before her trip that the bank charges a 2-percent foreign currency conversion fee on each overseas purchase.

The Lins wondered how the charge from Citibank could be identical if they weren't being charged an overseas transaction fee?

"It was at the same store at the same time. It was too much of a coincidence to me," says William Lin.

So the Lins disputed the extra 2-percent fee in writing. After much back and forth on the phone and little satisfaction, they wrote again, this time to an executive address.

The Lins also sent a complaint to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

"We just want to get to the bottom of this. We see this inconsistency and we want to have it explained. It's a matter of principle," Lin says.

Citibank, which in April of 2001 issued an amended cardholder agreement that states that Citibank USA now charges a surcharge on foreign transactions, continues to insist that there was no surcharge on the card the Lins used in 2000.

"Last year the pricing was different, but today it's the same in regards to the currency conversion fee," says Maria Mendler, a spokeswoman for Citibank. "The 2 percent is added to the conversion fee."

So the Lins paid the bill -- minus 2 percent.

Overcoming bad info
What should you do if you believe a customer service rep has given you false information? Make some noise, lots of noise. Put it in writing. Keep a record of every communication with the bank. Pull out your cardholder agreement if you can find it.

"Going into battle you don your armor and your armor is pen and paper and a paper trail," says Linda Sherry, editorial director at Consumer Action, a consumer advocacy organization based in San Francisco, Calif.

Complain to the bank in writing.

To be protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act, which was passed by Congress in 1975, a consumer must contact the issuer in writing within 60 days after the erroneous billing was mailed. The issuer is then required to conduct an investigation and either correct the mistake or explain why the bill is correct within two billing cycles.

Consumer experts also encourage dissatisfied credit card customers to fire off a letter to the bank president or CEO. Let the people at the top know you're not happy with their company and why.

"I always think it's worth it to write to the president and CEO's office," Sherry says. "Go on the Web. Find out who the CEO is and write them a letter. They don't really like to get letters at the CEO's office, especially letters about problems at the bottom of the heap."

Dialing for disputes
There's also a chance you could get your dispute resolved by phone but it will take some time and quite a bit of patience. Do your homework first. Keep a written record of all previous communications you've had with the bank.

Take a deep breath and call the company. Be ready to tell your story to a number of people. There's a good chance the first person you talk to won't be able to help you. Be persistent.

If a customer service rep can't help you, ask for a supervisor. If a supervisor can't help you, ask for a manager.

If a manager can't help you, ask to speak to the Office of the President. You'll find the folks manning these phones much more receptive. Their aim is to keep your business and to make the complaint go away.

Filing a federal complaint
You can also complain about your card issuer to federal regulators.

If the card is issued by a bank or savings institution, you would need to contact one of the following federal agencies: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, or the Office of Thrift Supervision.

Not sure what federal regulatory agency to contact? The FDIC can help. Call its toll-free consumer call center at 800-934-3342 or consult its online directory of financial institutions. For a complaint regarding a credit card issued by a credit union, contact the National Credit Union Administration.

Customers still fuming over poor service may be tempted to drag a credit card issuer into court. As nice as it may feel to sue a bank for shoddy customer service, it's not very practical.

First off, federal consumer credit card protections focus on disclosure. As long as the company discloses the fees in the original cardholder agreement and subsequent notices as spelled out by federal law, the bank is free to charge fees.

"It comes down to what did the customer agree to when they signed up for a credit card," says Kevin Mukri, a spokesman for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

You may have a case under a state's unfair and deceptive practices law. But it might be tough to get an attorney to take a case involving a $29 fee.

And lots of card customers no longer have the right to sue issuers, thanks to the mandatory arbitration clauses many of the top credit card companies have added to their card agreements. In arbitration, a dispute is handled by a third party, called a "neutral," that hears both sides and makes a decision.

"If an employee of a company makes an oral misrepresentation that causes you damage, you have a legal right to get your money back from that company," says Jon Sheldon, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. "But the company probably won't give it to you and you'll have difficulty enforcing your rights."

If you can't beat 'em, leave 'em
Even though it might be hard to sock it to a credit card issuer in court over questionable customer service, you can hit back at the company: Leave.

"Frankly the most effective step a consumer can take is to threaten to cancel the card. That will usually get action," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director at Consumer Federation of America.

"It's not as if they'll have trouble finding another card."

The competition in the credit card industry is pretty intense. There are plenty of card companies eager for your business.

"If they're unhappy with one bank, there's 50 banks ready to do business with them," Mukri says. "They shouldn't feel like they're victims. They're in the driver's seat."

A threat to leave as a card customer may just get you what you want. If you're still not satisfied with the card company, bolt for a new issuer.

"If hundreds of customers do it," says Brobeck, "they may just change their customer service policies."



-- Posted: June 24, 2004




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