Credit Card Companies Are Using Dirty Tricks to Force Us to Pay Late Fees: Why Won't Congress Do Something?

The Democrats should be the consumer's best friends right now, fighting these huge enterprises and demanding that they answer for their previous bad behavior.

I honestly believe that this is the kind of thing that affects people every day and is leading to a populist backlash. People not only blame those who do these things, they blame those who have the authority and power for failing to step in and stop it:

Three years ago, the Haggler's credit card bill seemed to stop showing up in the mail. Another month went by -- no bill. The month after that, still nothing. Each month, the Haggler would call the issuer, Bank of America, and pay over the phone, then ask the same question: "Why did you stop sending me a bill?"

We're still sending you a bill, came the company's reply each time.

Guess what? The company was right. It just was sending the bill in a restyled envelope, with no trace of "Bank of America." In other words, it looked like junk mail, and the Haggler kept throwing it away.

Now, the Hagglers can't prove it, but this seemed like a brilliant, low-cost way to pocket a fortune in late fees.

"We are not trying to fool people, and we don't change our envelopes on a regular basis," said Anne Pace, a company spokeswoman. She explained that the change in envelope design was prompted by the 2006 acquisition of several credit card companies, after which the envelopes of all customers were left blank "for the sake of consistency."

Consistency? It would be consistent, as far as B. of A. customers are concerned, to leave the envelope unchanged, no?

Seriously, the person who dreamed up the envelope switcheroo must wake up laughing. Ever since, the Haggler has held a grudging, vaguely appalled respect for credit card companies.

The same thing happened to me. The plain brown envelope looked like it was one of those car dealership "checks" that were all the rage before the credit crisis hit. And because I didn't realize the first month that I hadn't gotten my bill, it created a black mark on my credit for a late payment which resulted in a cascade of raised rates on several cards.

It was clearly a sneaky trick. Yes, it's my responsibility to know when my bills are due, but I had been in the habit of putting the bill into the "to pay" file and paying it on the following Monday. It didn't occur to me that the bill would suddenly come in an envelope with no return address or label on it that didn't look like a bill and so I tossed it into a junk pile and didn't look at it right away.

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And that's what people are dealing with all the time as consumers, with their health insurance, their credit cards, their mortgages, their pensions -- overwhelming complexity designed to trip them up and cost them money or deny them benefits to which they believed in good faith they were entitled. And its all perfectly legal -- or at least there's no visible accountability for it.

Digby is the proprietor of Hullabaloo.