There is a piece of advice missing from my article on credit card sanity. That’s because, at the time I wrote it, I had never allowed myself to be talked into applying for a store’s credit card at the cash register. I have now had this experience and learned why it is a Thing Not To Do.
Last fall, we badly needed a new mattress cover, since two of the ones we had had simultaneously shredded into uselessness. I had looked in all the usual discount stores without finding any low-priced mattress covers. Finally, I was in Macy’s and decided their price was exactly the maximum I was willing to pay and would just have to do. Thus, when the cashier offered me the option of getting 20% off if only I applied for a credit card, I succumbed to temptation.
This card was an American Express affiliated with Macy’s, so I could use it as a regular credit card anywhere and earn discounts at Macy’s. That made a lot more sense for me than a card that could be used only at Macy’s, since I hardly ever shop there unless there’s a great sale. I used the card for a couple of months and did, in fact, receive a coupon for a big discount at Macy’s.
The next time I went into Macy’s was to use said coupon, in late November. I got 4 pairs of high-quality cargo pants for my son for only $18.33–good deal! But that’s when things started to get weird.
Just after Christmas, I received two Macy’s credit card bills on the same day. With different return addresses. Also different account numbers. Upon close inspection, I realized that one of them (the one whose account number matched my card) had the American Express logo on it, while the other didn’t. The one that just said “Macy’s” included only the charge of $18.33 at Macy’s; the other bill had all my other charges.
I called the number on the AmEx bill (since I didn’t trust this other bill with an account number I’d never seen before!) and asked what was up. Turns out that when you get a Macy’s American Express card, you are actually signing up for two credit accounts affiliated with the same card: the AmEx account with the account number on the card, and a Macy’s account with an account number that is never revealed to you, the card holder, until you charge something at Macy’s and get a bill! Now, how the heck are you supposed to know that’s a legitimate bill?!
It was so ridiculous that I decided to close the account immediately. I wrote the two separate checks and mailed them to the two separate addresses (grrr), and on January 5, I received two separate notifications that my account had been closed and I owed zero dollars. But that’s not the end of the story.
On February 22, I received a statement on the Macy’s account claiming that I owed $57.66. This was itemized as $36.66 past balance plus $21 late fee. Note not only that had I been told I owed nothing in the confirmation of account closure, but that they had not billed me again since then.
I called customer service. The lady’s first explanation was that, because I had not paid my $18.33 bill but it was less than $21, the late fee assessed in January simply doubled the bill: $18.33×2=$36.66. Then, since I still did not pay, in February they charged the full late fee of $21.
“But I did pay! I mailed the check in December! And I have here in front of me the confirmation that the account had a zero balance when it was closed on January 5, before the due date of that bill!”
“Let me speak to my supervisor. . . .” When she returned, she told me those charges were canceled and I again had a zero balance.
Okay, but I couldn’t just let that go! I asked a few more incredulous questions, whereupon the lady said that she used to be a cashier in another department store, and these sign-up-at-the-register promotions almost always have fine print that is not adequately explained to the customer, simply because there isn’t time–both customer and cashier are rushed–and in some cases, the information about the account that the cashier hands to the customer is incomplete. The complete information always is available somewhere in accordance with the law, but it didn’t surprise her at all that the brochure I brought home from Macy’s (which I did, in fact, read) didn’t make it fully clear that I had signed up for two separate accounts. “These cards are aimed at people who spend a lot and can’t keep track of it,” she said. “Always question the charges, is what I learned! ”
I appreciate it so much when people at work, knowing that their every word is being “monitored for quality assurance,” are willing to tell you that the product or service their employer is selling is in fact crap. That shows courage and a genuine desire to be of service to the customer.
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