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July 26, 2006

AT&T Universal Card by Citi – Marketing Incompetence or Actual Ripoff?

AT&T Universal Card sent me a letter saying they were going to rip me off and that’s what I was going to blog about this morning.  But, at least according to my online statement, they didn’t.  Perhaps I should leave well enough alone but I’m not going to because maybe other people are getting ripped off.  Particularly if you had an AT&T Universal Card, please read on.  I was assessed late charges and fees because of what I believe was a procedural error (or computer bug); you may have been, too.

Mary and I have had Universal Cards with a cash rewards feature and “no annual fees for life” for a long time.  Sometime in May we received identical curt letters from AT&T Universal Card saying “Citi, the issuer of your AT&T Universal Cash Rewards Card, has decided to discontinue this credit card for business reasons.  Therefore, your account will be closed on 6/30/06.”

Quick Googling showed that many other people got the same letter so nothing personal.

We receive solicitations for various Citi cards all the time but there was nothing in this letter asking us to switch our account to one of them.  Maybe because of whatever the agreement is between AT&T which licensed its brand to Citi when it sold Universal Card to them.  Lousy marketing, I thought, and briefly thought of doing a Seth Godin like post.

Mary was angrier because she noticed that they were not going to pay off cash rewards unless the balance was over $50.  This is their normal deal but, also, normally, you have a year to accumulate this balance. I’m over $50 and, allegedly, my check is in the mail.  She wrote them demanding her balance anyway since she’s used the card in good faith expecting to have it for the full year.  She hasn’t heard back yet but this isn’t the possible ripoff I’m posting about.

Other dumb marketing stuff happened.  Got a solicitation for a Citi Card which didn’t mention my old AT&T card.  Shredded it.  “For business reasons” – low respect for customers – I’m not doing business with Citi.  Got an email solicitation from AT&T Universal Card themselves to buy IdentityMonitor.  Right.  Fat chance.  I’m still in the middle of switching automatic credit card payments over to my new card from Amex.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got a phone call from a collection guy telling me my AT&T Universal Card is two months overdue.  “What?” say I.  “I am on electronic billing and haven’t received any notices that a bill was due.”  He promised to send me one.

I go online and look at my account.  Sure enough, two billing cycles have gone by.  Two $39 late fees have been assessed.  $96.49 in interest charges.  Search through my spam filters and old mail.  No sign of any recent email from AT&T.  Usually they send a notice each billing cycle – that’s the deal when you forgo paper billing – and then I go online and pay. Hmm…

So I called customer support.  A polite CSR tells me that, if I pay the balance today as I intend to, she will remove the late fees but can’t remove the interest. No go, says I.  That interest is only on there because you guys didn’t send me the notice of a bill due.  Supervisor, please.

Supervisor “can’t” help either but she transfers me to tech support to look into the missing email notification.  Not-so-polite tech support person -  after the third request for my account number, my mother’s maiden name, the last four digits of my social security number and my title at Evslin Consulting -  says that their records “show” that I have been getting email including one sent this morning.

Nope.  Don’t even have this morning’s email.  “Yes you do,” she says.  “Our records show it.”

“Your records show what you think you sent, not what I got,” I say – still polite.  The tech rep says, if I’m lucky, I’ll get credit for one late fee. No way on the interest.

An email that I have a bill due arrives the next morning. Now I might think that maybe the “Internet” they sent me is stuck behind the email Senator Stevens reported was delayed in the “tubes” but actually, I know how the Internet works so I don’t think that.  What I do think is that Citi’s system is somehow not set up right to deal with these canceled accounts which are in good standing.  The email notifications of new electronic statements seem to have stopped just after they decided to discontinue my card.

The feature on my account that lets me email Citi is disabled although my account shows no signs of having been discontinued and I am able to make an online payment of what I think I owe – all merchant charges, no fees or interest.  So I write a snail mail letter demanding credit for all fees and interest.

Last night I came back from a trip and found a snail mail back saying “After further review, we have determined that your account is not eligible for a credit of the fees.” Woke up during the night composing both my angry post and my letter back to them saying that “after further review, I have decided to disallow your claim for fees and interest.  Please check your computer systems and don’t dare report me to any credit bureaus.”

But, before I post, I go online to check my account and find that, on the very day they wrote this letter, they credited the late fees.  Three days later they credited the interest.  Interestingly, my account still shows an available credit balance and no indication of the fact that it’s been discontinued – even though they are declining new charges as they said they would do after 6/30.

I called (what they say you have to do) to check on my cash back refund. A robot told me I’d reached the maximum of $300 accumulated cash back so can’t have the amount sent to me.  Huh?  I talk to a CSR who tells me that the refund is in the mail, that must be why I got this voice response which doesn’t make any sense.

I’ve been in computing since it was called data processing; I have a theory for what is going on.  Quite possibly the programs written to handle these accounts had no provision for mass termination of accounts in good standing.  Maybe the programs were modified quickly; maybe various hacks were tried.  Whatever, the result of trying to do the mass termination may have somehow interfered with the sending out of emails no matter what their system “shows”.

The reason this is important – if it is true – is that many people may have been assessed late fees and interest as I was because of possible incompetence on Citi’s part.  They shouldn’t have to pay these.  Citi should be proactive in looking into this problem.  If you have a Universal Card which was terminated AND if you were on electronic billing, you probably should check your own account.  If you find a problem, please post a comment here (without any account identification, of course.).

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