PIRATES OF THE CREDIT SEA – Part 4: Hitting the Citibank Stone Wall in Polite Conversation
This article continues my personal saga of trying to get Citibank to fix problems with their management of my credit card account with them.
For a summary of the overall situation, go to Part #1: My Treasure Is Taken!
For an article about your rights to correct billing statements that you receive from financial institutions, go to Part #2: What are my rights?
For an article summarizing how Citibank “managed” my initial written appeal go to Part #3: I want my treasure back!! (Please)
First, I would like you to know about an ongoing investigation of credit card company abuses by the U.S. Senate. Current federal laws and regulations regarding credit card companies are very weak with respect to the rights of customers. This will not change unless you speak up. The Senate could make a difference. As individuals, asking a credit card company to act responsibly, when abusive tactics are so profitable, will never fix this situation. As my article below indicates, it is easy to waste your breath talking to credit card company staff.
In March 2007, the United States Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held hearings on the business practices of credit card companies. The Senate’s investigation is continuing. If you have any experiences with credit card companies that you would like the Senate to be aware of, you should send your information to the committee.
To find the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and read their materials on credit card abuses, use this link. This webpage for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also lists the members of this subcommittee and provides links to their offices. If you want to contact any of these Senators, it probably makes sense to send an email or a fax. (Snail mail to the Congress will be delayed, because of security screening processes, but you could still send hardcopy if you want to.)
If your Senator is not on this Subcommittee, then contact the office of Subcommittee Chairman Senator Carl Levin of Michigan. Use the “Contact Center” link under “About Senator Levin.” Just briefly summarize your credit card situation to Senator Levin, reference the Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations, and provide your contact information. It is important to mention credit cards and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, so that the Senator’s staff can sort your inquiry from home state constituent inquiries and forward your message to subcommittee staff. I have no idea whether your senator or the subcommittee staff will contact you, but they will not know your story, unless you tell them. I have.
Back to my Citibank saga:
This article’s general lesson for readers is that you should remain calm and polite, while you are also firm and persistent in dealing with a credit card company bureaucracy. If your appeal falls outside of the protections of the Fair Credit Billing Act, you should expect things to take far more time. Citibank has administrative stone walls in place that block a reasoned discourse. If credit card company’s frustrating tactics wear you out, and you stop trying, then your credit card company will keep your money and will move on. That is the path that Citibank has been on with my treasure.
Writing to Vice President and General Manager Garry did not work. All I got was a cryptic rejection letter with more erroneous advice from Citibank’s incompetent S. Larson machine. What should I do next? I decided to call Citibank customer service to find out what the next steps were. I wanted to know three things:
A) who made the decision to deny my claim for a further refund,
B) what the grounds were for denying my claim, and
C) to whom should I write to at a higher level within Citibank to appeal this rejection.
During that call, I hit the Citibank credit card operations stone wall. Yet, I found out some very interesting things in these conversations.
I long ago learned that you never get angry, and you never raise your voice when dealing with a bureaucracy. Emotionalism is useless, ineffective, counter-productive, and entirely pointless. There are human beings on the other end of the conversation who are doing the job they are told to do. The people you deal with in the lower levels of a bureaucracy are just functionaries with very limited or zero discretion. However, they can provide useful information. You should ask many questions and take careful notes.
Citibank put my account into default without justification, and Citibank “made” quite a bit of money from me through this maneuver. The treasure they took from me has already been booked in Citibank’s financials for the fourth calendar quarter of 2006 and for the first calendar quarter of 2007. If Citibank were to refund my money, that money would need to come out of the current quarter. To pay me back, they would have to make up the money elsewhere. That would make it harder for Citibank’s credit card operations to meet their current quarter financial goals. They would have to turn the screws down on some other customers to make up the difference. If Citibank could turn me away at the gate, then they could keep my money. Through my interactions with Citibank, I have the distinct impression that Citibank’s credit card operations are structured to do just this. However, with my faith in dogged persistence and a personal fascination in how service organizations can act “not to serve,” I moved ahead.
When I called Citibank credit card customer services after my written appeal was rejected in writing with no explanation, I first spoke to Deckhand Curly. (This is a pseudonym. Citibank customer service representatives only give a first or last name and no telephone number or employee number. They avoid leaving tracks for you to retrace.) Deckhand Curly was not helpful from the outset. Knowing that she could do nothing, I politely asked to speak to a supervisor. She insisted that I explain the situation, despite the fact that I had already written in detail to Vice President Garry. I asked her if there was a summary of the situation on her computer screen, so that I would not have to re-explain the history verbally. She would not tell me whether or not she had any summary or any indication of my letter.
I have no way of knowing what she knew, but I got the distinct impression that something about my account indicated that I should not get any red carpet treatment. I tried to be very polite, as I proceeded to outline the situation. Deckhand Curly told me that she could not do anything for me. When I mentioned that the problems first occurred in October 2006, she told me that the system would only show her the last six months of account history, and she could not help me.
I explained to her how I had already paid the minimum payment for October 2006, but that my account was put into default anyway, when somebody at Citibank tried to put through a duplicative automated payment that failed. She told me again that she could not help me. However, she did not suggest any alternative. She did not know who had made the decision to reject my appeal or why.
However, I always find it useful to ask questions and to explain things. When I mentioned that my wife had heard from another Citibank Deckhand in a previous telephone conversation that automated payments could not be set up on a closed account, she was very, very quick to contradict me. She insisted that auto payments could be set up on a closed account, but that someone had to make a call to the other bank to get it to work when they tried to put through the first auto payment. This response made me wonder whether she did have a written summary of the situation on her screen, because I had raised the question of automated payments on a closed account in my letter to VP Garry. Another explanation could be that Deckhand Curly had some experience and knew how to do automated payments properly. Who knows what the reality is. If some experienced person at Citibank who understood the reasons why auto payments fail, had diagnosed our situation, perhaps this whole mess might never have happened.
Citibank’s double charge of the minimum payment in October 2006, and its failure ever to execute successfully any auto payments using the correct bank information that we repeatedly supplied from July to October 2006 was at the heart of the issue. We kept giving Citibank the same information from the checks that we had been using to pay Citibank through the mail, and they had a voided copy of one of the checks. This was never a situation of inadequate funds on our part.
Why did this fail? How should I know? I’m a bank customer. I am not a bank. Citibank is supposed to administer properly these banking operations — not me. Citibank would not tell us anything except that it did not work. When we called, Citibank representatives said to try it again. We got the same instruction letters from Citibank’s S. Larson machine and sent back the same information from the checks.
If there was something special about the situation, why didn’t Citibank figure it out after we gave Citibank the same numbers repeatedly. Why didn’t they call the operations people at my other bank to sort it out? (The other bank is another very large institution that should have been easy to find. We would even have helped Citibank contact our other bank, if Citibank wanted to contact them and asked us. The other bank’s name address and phone number were on the voided check we submitted to Citibank.) Was there something about this being a closed Citibank account, that made automated payments a non-standard transaction that required human intervention? We still do not know, and Citibank has not told us.
However, I do wonder about the incentive structure. If Citibank had succeeded with automated payments, then they could have been reliably paid by my other bank. There were always plenty of funds available from our other bank account. On the other hand, if Citibank was paid reliably via automatic payments (just as we reliably paid Citibank each and every month via a check through the mails), then they could have this particular excuse to trigger the default interest rate. Consider the incentives: A) figure out how to get automated payments to work and get paid 2.99% or B) fail, trigger default, and raise the interest rate to 32.31%. Which to choose?
After about six or seven minutes of talking to Deckhand Curly, I knew I could not get anywhere, so I again asked to speak to a supervisor. A stonewalling strategy is more effective, if multiple stone walls are erected. Deckhand Curly absorbed some of my energy. I suspect that many customers would give up in dealing with such an unhelpful first level Deckhand. In my case, the first line of defense on the telephone at Citibank’s customer service operations just wasted my time. “I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do for you” equals no service.
So, I was handed off to an “Account Manager” who had an authoritative male voice. I will call him First Mate Shemp to protect his one name identity. When she handed me off to him, Deckhand Curly did nothing to explain the situation to First Mate Shemp. I had to start the story all over again with First Mate Shemp. He was just as unhelpful as Deckhand Curly. I have been given the run around before in my life, but I was impressed by how much First Mate Curly would tell me, but how little he was willing to help me:
1) When asked if Vice President Garry had made the decision, he said yes. Later in the conversation, after he told me there were 30,000 employees I expressed incredulity that Ms. Garry would have made this decision personally. (Telling me that there were 30,000 customer service employees, I believe was part of a tactic to justify not knowing who or even what department had made the decision on my written appeal.) Then, I asked again whether VP Garry really had made the decision on my appeal, given that she had so many people reporting to her. Then, First Mate Shemp said that he had not said she had. (Yes, he had not said those actual words, but I recall that he had responded affirmatively to my earlier question asking whether she had made the decision on my appeal.)
2) I asked if S. Larson had made the decision. That is when I learned from First Mate Shemp that all customers letters were signed by S. Larson and that S. Larson was a machine pseudonym with a human’s signature. Certainly the S. Larson machine, could not have made the decision, even though the S. Larson machine has written to me many times before telling me what to do. I am familiar with artificial intelligence computer applications. The S. Larson machine is not one of them.
3) I have extensive interviewing and negotiation experience. I framed my questions and probed in numerous ways. First Mate Curly seemed to be an old hand at stonewalling. He told me a lot, while telling me so very little that was genuinely helpful to me. In response to my questions, First Mate Curly told that:
A) He did not know who had made the decision. He did not know how to find out.
B) He did not know the name of any person in the Citibank’s credit card operations who could tell me how the decision was made.
C) He did not have the telephone number of anyone else with any authority at Citibank who knew anything about my case.
D) He could not transfer me to anyone else at Citibank who might be helpful to me.
4) I continued to be polite, but persistent. Gosh, I thought that 15 years of being a reliable customer who had always paid on time should have entitled me to more responsiveness. I decided that it was time to wind up the conversation. To that point, I had been talked to Deckhand Curly and First Mate Shemp for about 20 minutes in total. I asked First Mate Shemp, if there was any government agency that I could report this to and whether Citibank had any obligation to tell me this information. He mentioned the FTC in passing and told me to figure it out myself on the web. He neither acknowledged or denied any obligation to help me understand my right to make an appeal to any external regulatory authority at the state or federal levels.
5) In a last ditch effort to get any useful information from First Mate Shemp before ending the conversation, I asked whether Citibank had any “customer advocate” whom I could talk to. He said no. I asked whether Citibank had any “ombudsman” whom I could talk to. He said no.
At this point, I decided finally to end the conversation. I thought to myself that I would simply write to Citibank’s CEO and work my way down into the organization from there. I paused in frustration. Then, something apparently had happened in having used the terms “customer advocate” and “ombudsman” with First Mate Shemp. He volunteered the first bit of useful information that he had given me, after 12 to 15 minutes of talking, asking, and probing. He said I could write to Ken Stork, Citibank’s President of Customer Service in South Dakota. I got Mr. Stork’s address for First Mate Shemp, and read it back to him to verify its accuracy. I thanked First Mate Shemp for the information, and we concluded our conversation, which had always remained civil and polite.
Having learned from First Mate Shemp that S. Larson was a machine and having never heard back from the presumably flesh-and-blood VP & GM Julie Garry, I was suspicious of being told to write to some person named Stork in South Dakota of all places. I did a Google search and confirmed that there was a Ken Stork who was a Citibank executive, and he did seem to be located in South Dakota. I could not find Ken Stork by searching Citibank’s website, but references to Ken Stork on non-Citibank sites were enough to indicate that he probably was a real Citibank executive.
I wrote an appeal letter to Mr. Stork, which took even more of my valuable time. I attached a copy of my first appeal letter to VP & GM Garry and included a copy of the S. Larson machine’s rejection letter. Not enough time has passed to have heard back from Mr. Stork. I remain hopeful that he will fix this for me, but I have lost all faith in Citibank’s goodwill.
My family did not travel over the Memorial Day weekend. These articles for The Skilled Investor Blog just poured out of me over the holiday weekend. I hope that you have found some useful information in these articles to help you guard against abuse by credit card companies or to help you learn useful things that could help you to defend your rights. Go over every billing statement carefully, write within 60 days to protect your Fair Credit Billing Act rights, and don’t give up.