Ex-MBNA employees fault credit practices

Posted Sept. 25, 2008, at 12:15 a.m.

By Abigail Curtis

Former MBNA customer service representative Cate Colombo of Camden can’t forget the abandoned wife she persuaded to take on $40,000 of credit card debt.

Or the many military spouses she wasn’t allowed to offer the lower interest rate to which they were legally entitled.

And certainly not the time her manager yelled at her when she wouldn’t give a 90-year-old man a $100,000 line of credit.

“I said no, I won’t do it. I refuse,” Colombo recalled Wednesday. “I got pulled out of my chair and told I was insubordinate.”

Colombo and Jerry Young, also of Camden, are two whistle-blowing former employees of the now-defunct credit card giant. They are speaking out against the business practices that they say were pervasive, unethical — and that have played a role in the country’s current economic downturn.

“The customer needs more protection,” Young said. “I really, truly believe that many people who are using their credit cards fail to realize how additional fees come about.”

The two participated in a press conference arranged by Americans for Fairness in Lending.

Some of the specific practices they are decrying include having to push exorbitantly high lines of credit on unsuspecting customers, not being allowed to take no for an answer and being pressured to sell extras such as credit card insurance.

“I became increasingly disturbed by the practices,” Colombo, 49, said. “I would be washing dishes at night and cry into the sink, and my kids didn’t know what was wrong.”

The consumer advocacy group was marking Tuesday’s passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of the act known as the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights and bringing attention to what officials called the “tricks and traps” of the credit industry.

The practices carried out at MBNA continue today in banks that still sell credit cards, officials said.

“They make it impossible for people to ever work their way out of debt,” said Jim Campen, executive director of the group and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts.

Americans have $850 billion in credit card debt and households with credit card balances owe an average of $17,000. These numbers are high, and they’ve been steadily creeping upward every year, according to the Federal Reserve Board.

Colombo and Young don’t like that they played a role in this upward credit trajectory.

“It was a selling job, but what I was selling was debt to our cardholders,” Young, 69, said. “They started expecting me to do more things in terms of creating indebtedness for customers, and I was opposed to that.”

If the U.S. Senate passes the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights, it would:

• Require credit card issuers to give account holders 45 days’ notice of any interest rate increases.

• Require that monthly bills be mailed at least 25 days before the due date.

• Eliminate charging fees to customers who have paid on time.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 312-112. It is facing strong opposition from the banking industry and the White House.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District voted for the bill.

“I voted for this bill because I believe that it provides important protections for consumers,” he said in a statement.

Bank of America acquired MBNA in 2005, and a spokeswoman denied the consumer group’s claim that dodgy credit practices continue there today.

“The allegations cited do not reflect our practices,” Betty Riess said. “Bank of America has nothing to gain by extending credit to people who do not have the ability to pay us back.”

But that’s not what Colombo — who was eventually fired from MBNA — and Young, who quit, remember from their time in the telephone trenches.

“It was sell, sell, sell, sell,” Colombo said. “And now the conditions are exactly the same, the sales tactics are exactly the same. This is for the greater good, and this needs to get out there.”

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