Karma? For­mer bank rep gets runaround from Cap­i­tal One

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DAVID LAZARUS

When a for­mer bank ex­ec­u­tive gets the shaft from a big bank, it’s tempt­ing to see this as a sat­is­fy­ing turn of the karmic wheel. But I’m not mean-spir­ited, so I’ll just say, “Wel­come to the con­sumer club, dude.”

Michael Chee, 44, used to be a se­nior spokesguy at Bank of Amer­ica. He and I dealt with each other on a num­ber of col­umns.

These days, Chee han­dles com­mu­ni­ca­tions for White Me­mo­rial Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Los An­ge­les. But it’s his sta­tus as a Cap­i­tal One credit card cus­tomer that’s per­ti­nent here.

And his story high­lights the im­por­tance of read­ing the fine print that typ­i­cally ac­com­pa­nies bank mail­ings. Not do­ing so can lead to big changes to your ac­count.

“It’s death by a thou­sand paper cuts,” Chee told me. “This is how banks try to slip things past cus­tomers.”

He re­ceived a new card from Cap One this month. The bank didn’t say why his card was be­ing re­placed, just that he was be­ing is­sued new plas­tic “filled with lots of great fea­tures to help you make the most of your ac­count.” Chee wasn’t sure at first why he was get­ting a new card. Both his old and new cards ex­pire in 2013, so that wasn’t it. There was no men­tion of a se­cu­rity breach or sus­pected fraud in the mail­ing, so that wasn’t it ei­ther.

“It took me a minute to no­tice the dif­fer­ence,” Chee said. “The re­wards writ­ing was gone.”

On his old card, it says “no has­sle re­wards” on the front of the card, mean­ing that each trans­ac­tion us­ing the card qual­i­fied him for re­wards points. On the new card, nada. It isn’t a re­wards card.

Lazarus,

Chee called Cap One. The first ser­vice rep he reached couldn’t ex­plain why he’d re­ceived a new card. The sec­ond one also had no ex­pla­na­tion.

It wasn’t un­til Chee reached a third ser­vice rep that he was told he’d been is­sued a new card be­cause he had opted out of Cap One’s re­wards pro­gram in late 2009.

This was news to Chee. He didn’t re­mem­ber opt­ing out of any­thing.

And, the rep said, all of Chee’s re­wards points were now gone. And there was noth­ing he could do about it.

The irony of a for­mer bank spokesman get­ting the runaround from bank ser­vice reps isn’t lost on me. But I sym­pa­thize with Chee’s po­si­tion.

And that’s not just be­cause this is a funky way for any busi­ness to treat a cus­tomer. I also sym­pa­thize be­cause Chee couldn’t have re­sponded to any bank mail­ings in late 2009 even if he’d wanted to.

He was se­ri­ously in­jured in a boat­ing ac­ci­dent on La­bor Day of that year. Chee un­der­went brain surgery and spent six weeks in the hos­pi­tal.

He said he’s now “nearly fully re­cov­ered.” But at the time, Chee said that “read­ing mail was the last thing on my mind.”

The Cap One ser­vice rep, he said, didn’t budge when he told her this. She in­sisted that his re­wards points were for­feited.

Pam Gi­rardo, a Cap One spokes­woman, said the bank sent letters in Septem­ber 2009 to “a small group of cus­tomers who did not ap­pear to be en­gaged in their re­wards pro­gram” — that is, they weren’t us­ing their plas­tic as much as the bank wanted them to.

The cus­tomers were told that their re­wards pro­gram was end­ing and that they had 60 days to opt in to a new one. “If they did not opt in, then they were con­verted to a non-re­wards ac­count,” Gi­rardo said.

Need­less to say, this is a pretty shabby way to treat loyal cus­tomers. If Cap One had de­ter­mined that a credit card holder wasn’t en­joy­ing the full ben­e­fits of a re­wards plan, the cor­rect re­sponse should have been a let­ter ask­ing if the cus­tomer wanted to opt out of the plan or switch to an­other plan.

To send a let­ter re­quir­ing cus­tomers to re­new mem­ber­ship in a pro­gram they al­ready be­longed to or be au­to­mat­i­cally trans­ferred to a non-re­wards card seems like noth­ing more than a sneaky way to thin the ranks of re­wards re­cip­i­ents.

Gi­rardo was at a loss to ex­plain why it took no fewer than three ser­vice reps to ex­plain to Chee what was go­ing on with his ac­count, or why, even at that point, the rep still got things wrong. For ex­am­ple, Chee should have been told that he’d be cred­ited for any re­wards points lost.

“Mr. Chee should have been able to re-en­roll in re­wards when he called in to let us know that he does in fact want to be in a re­wards pro­gram,” Gi­rardo said. “I can­not ex­plain what hap­pened there and un­der­stand his dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the ser­vice he re­ceived. We re­gret any frus­tra­tion this has caused.”

Chee said he got a call the other day from a Cap One exec who apol­o­gized for how he was treated and of­fered to re­store Chee’s re­ward points. Chee wasn’t im­pressed. “I told him that I know how this works be­cause I used to do what he does,” Chee said. “The only rea­son he was call­ing me was be­cause a re­porter had called. They were just fol­low­ing the play­book.”

Chee told the Cap One exec that the bank could keep its re­wards points. He sug­gested that Cap One in­stead use this episode as a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for its ser­vice reps.

And what will Chee do now?

“I’ll pay off the bal­ance on my credit card and move on.”

An­other once-sat­is­fied cus­tomer lost.

An­drew Harrer

Bloomberg News

CHANGE: Cap­i­tal One sent letters re­quir­ing some cus­tomers to re­new mem­ber­ship in a pro­gram they al­ready be­longed to or be trans­ferred to a dif­fer­ent card.

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