Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The surprising key to credit-card satisfaction

Sorry for the unexpected hiatus. I am the world's worst business traveler -- it always takes me days to recover afterward, and I get incredibly unproductive until the post-travel/jet-lag-blah passes. I have no idea how salespeople and whatnot stand doing it constantly.

Anyway, I return with a rant. When choosing credit cards, I typically look at the fine print about rates, terms, grace periods, etc. Something it never occurred to me to investigate: how annoying is the lender?

My Amex In NYC card has been my main pay-off-each-month card for about 18 months. For several years, I've also had a Providian Visa, which I got to take advantage of the 4% lifetime ARP on transferred balances. I transferred over my credit card debt, paid off a chunk each month, stuck the card in a drawer, and ignored it.

Everything went smoothly until last September, when I was distracted (it was another damn business trip, naturally) and forgot to make a payment. Whoops. I remembered about a week after the due date and promptly sent it off, but by then, the damage was done. Providian whacked me with a $40 late fee. I called, complained, and got it removed, but the really nasty part was that the late payment triggered an APR jump. My 4% rate shot to 20% -- with no formal notice. I found out about the penalty when I saw the sky-high charges on my next statement. I called again to complain, this time about the lack of notice that I'd triggered a rate increase. I also politely threatened to yank my balance off the card if they didn't put my rate back down. They refused, and I went shopping for another transfer offer. Crankily. My balance was low enough that the higher APR wasn't actually costing me that much; I was more annoyed by the shoddy customer service and the principle of the thing.

So, for once, I took an interest in the credit-card offers jamming my mailbox. Chase sent one offering a 0% balance transfer through 2007. I took it, and transferred my Providian balance. (I decided not to cancel the Providian card, though, to keep the free FICO score access.)

The problems with Chase started with my very first statement. I had scoured the fine print of their card offer for catches, but managed to miss the big one: they offer a 0% APR, but charge a transfer fee on balances moved over. I maxed it out and got hit with a $75 charge. Grrrrrrrr. Also, the dangled 'no APR till 2007' promise didn't pan out -- they instead only set my 0% APR period for about three months. Another little fine-print catch: they can change the terms of their offer at any time. Grrr again.

When we got our tax refund, I paid off my credit-card debt and left my Chase and Providian cards with $0 balances. I haven't yet cancelled the Chase card, but I'm highly tempted. My old cards spoiled me. I was unprepared for Chase's constant hard-selling tactics.

The first call was the one that caught me most unaware. A Chase agent rang to 'confirm some information about your account.' It was a few weeks after I'd opened the account, so I figured I'd go along with it. 'Is this your address?' Yes. 'Is this your correct phone number?' Yes. 'OK, Ms. Cowley, I'm enrolling you in the credit-protection plan ...' Wait -- what? I had never agreed at any point in the call to any new 'services' -- I thought I was just confirming information for their records. I emphatically said no, no new services, do not enroll me in anything, and hung up. The agent had a thick Indian accent, and seemed not to follow when I said I hadn't agreed to anything like that. I got the impression he was following a script, and had either missed a step or been instructed that if you get a few minutes into the call, just keep barreling along.

Since then, at least once a week I get a phone call from Chase agents (always from offshore call centers) trying to talk to me about my account. Now, if I'm unluckly enough to answer the phone, I immediately say I don't want any new services and hang up.

Chase also blankets me with mailed offers, of the particularly insidious 'cash this courtesy check to start your new services' variety. One recent one included a $10 check, which would sign me up for a $120/year plan offering 'discounts' at Disney World. I can think of few things more insanely priced and useless.

Luckily, I'm not at all tempted by $10 checks, but such marketing tactics seem deeply deceptive and unethical (though probably legal). Had I known Chase pulled this crap, I would never have gotten their card in the first place. I never expected credit-card companies to be warm and fuzzy corporate Samaritans, but this is skeezier than anything I've experienced with other companies.

So, for any considering Chase cards, be warned!