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No Extra Credit.

I was in a tabloid-induced fugue state at the supermarket checkout counter, musing about whether Linda Tripp could have killed JonBenet, when my credit card problems began. "Your Visa's been declined," the cashier announced, giving me a wary once-over. I had imagined I looked like a yuppie fresh from the gym, but with Visa disowning me the impression was undoubtedly more of a fugitive on her way from the state pen.

"Impossible," I blustered. "I always pay them in full and precisely on time each month." Too bad: no turkey cutlets, Formula 409, or Glad Wrap for me that day.

I have always tried to get along with the capitalist system, or "late" capitalist system, as the theorists optimistically describe it. In my day-to-day transactions, I take the render-unto-Caesar approach, as inculcated long ago by my parents: Work hard, pay bills, change underwear daily. Those are the rules I live by. It's been decades--well, years anyway--since I've had to turn off the phone at night to avoid the collection agencies. The only utopian aspect of my financial life is Working Assets, which handles my long distance calls, my individual retirement account, and, yes, the very Visa card under discussion. My hope has always been that, by letting Working Assets serve as a go-between between me and the ruthless capitalist system, I would be helping to bring about something very different--kinder, gentler, and with lower interest rates.

But following the rules doesn't do you any good if the rules keep changing. The credit card companies, in particular, are well known to be a fickle, emotionally labile lot. When they're in a good mood, they ply you with ever-escalating credit limits, frequent-flier miles, discounts on leaf-blowers, and trips to Cancun. But if irritated in the smallest degree or temporarily deprived of their lithium, they can turn on you overnight, threatening to repossess the furniture or auction your children's kidneys. A couple of weeks after my humiliation in the checkout line, I got a letter from Fleet Bank.

Fleet, a name heretofore largely associated with do-it-yourself enema equipment, seems to have become a major global financial player and developed some sort of alliance with Visa and hence with my old friend Working Assets. Anyway, this letter explained coldly that, due to a problem with my credit rating, my credit limit had been reduced to $400, which is barely enough for a round-trip ticket to Chicago or some even less desirable destination.

All right, I admit that there is a blot--a mere flyspeck, really--on my credit rating. But it's not of my making, as I have attempted to explain over the years in a steady stream of letters to TRW, Experian, and all the other snitches in the "credit reporting" business. Anyway, this flyspeck predates my relationship with the Visa/Fleet/Working Assets gang. So I called Fleet's 800 number, got hold of "Debbie," and screamed, "But I've always paid YOU in full and on time!"

"Yes, I see that in your record," she snorted. "In full. On time. Every month."

If this conversation were not being recorded "to improve our service," she would no doubt have added "Fool!" or worse.

Because, as a little research revealed, the credit card companies are on a campaign to eliminate the estimated 40 percent of their customers, myself

included, who deprive them of interest payments by maintaining a zero balance. They will search your credit rating and possibly your closets and drawers, seeking some excuse to drop you. Upon learning of this outrageous practice, I called my friend the human rights lawyer and asked her to spare a few moments from torture in Peru and lethal beatings in New York City jail cells.

"Sorry, Barb," was all the help I got. "A Visa card is not a human right. Why don't you just pay cash?"

Well, I'll tell you why not. My biggest monthly credit card expenditure is for airplane tickets, and paying cash for airplane tickets figures prominently in the drug-courier profile the airlines maintain--right up there with dubious skin color. Buy your ticket with cash or make the mistake of being African-American and you're likely to be wrestled to the ground and strip-searched in the middle of some food court at O'Hare. What does it take to get Amnesty International's attention?

Besides, if I don't have a right to credit, what makes the credit card companies think they have a right to interest? Just look at the precedent that's being established here: The county I live in would clearly make more money off me if I committed more fine-able offenses, like tossing Bud cans from my car or installing obscene statuary in the front yard. Will the county now decide to expel me because it would be more profitable to replace me with a deadbeat or sex fiend?

Similarly, the airlines can make money off of no-show passengers with nonrefundable tickets, so long as their seats can be resold. Should they start turning away people who have a record of showing up on time, perky and eager to fly? Start down this path, and we will see restaurants ejecting customers who order the blue-plate special, department stores sending security guards to clobber anyone found milling around the sale racks.

Of course, I tried complaining to Working Assets, too, where I was reassured by "Shirley" that someone very high up, possibly "Martha," would call me right back and straighten everything out. Weeks later, and after a few more phone calls to folks at the Shirley level of the Working Assets hierarchy, I have yet to hear a word from Martha or anyone else there. My advice to anyone contemplating the new credit card that The Nation is currently offering: If you end up calling the 800 number on the back of the card to complain about the service, don't expect Victor Navasky to pick up the phone.

In the end, there is only one rule of capitalism, and it isn't "honor your contracts" or "pay your debts." In fact, it's more like a law of nature than a rule, and it goes like this: Whatever a corporation, and perhaps especially a corporate purveyor of "financial products," can get away with, it will. If a credit card company comes to regret that it charges only 10 percent interest, it can find a way to double that rate overnight. If its CEO needs to renovate his ski lodge in Vail, he can pump up the late fee, and no one will know except for those victims of obsessive-compulsive disorder who take the time to read the fine print on the back of their bills. If it's legal, the corporate guys will do it. And if it's not legal, they'll hire a raft of lawyers to make sure it becomes so in the next session of Congress.

Here's one thing you can do to help: Representative John La Falce (Democrat of New York) has introduced a bill, HR 4410, that would make it a violation of the Truth-in-Lending Act for a credit card issuer to penalize a cardholder solely because he or she maintains a zero balance. Send that man a nice big hug!

Or you can join me in the quest for revenge. Build up a five-figure credit card debt, circumventing your credit limit however you can. Then, when good old Y2K rolls around, just let those bloodsuckers try to collect.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "Blood Rites" and "The Snarling Citizen," writes each month for The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:actions companies will take to make money, including financial services companies
Author:Ehrenreich, Barbara
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1999
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