Vol. 13, No. 3,240 - The American Reporter - August 31, 2007

Dungeons of Debt

by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Bradenton, Fla.

Printable version of this story

BRADENTON, Fla. -- ExxonMobil is one of those companies that don't like to be contacted by telephone. They list no phones on their Websites for consumer credit-card holders, and their individual "On The Run" stores aren't always listed in the local phone book. Call the numbers via the store locator service at the oil giant's Websites, and no one may answer. If they do, they don't (in my experience) have any desire to be helpful. Call their media line a few minutes after 5 and you always get a recorded message: there's no point working late at a company that's already breaking all records for profit.

It's the classic corporate syndrome; companies want to reach out and touch consumers with high interest rates on their branded credit cards, but make it nearly impossible to pay the cards at the last minute except by old-fashioned "snail mail," which varies so wildly in delivery dates that you can never be sure you're going to beat the due date and so avoid a $29 late fee on your $16 payment.

'The phone rings 40 times and finally cuts off. I call back a third time and a woman answers: "No," she says. "No." "No." You can't pay your bills at the store or the e-kiosk... .'

Exxon says it's trying to make itself more user-friendly, but that's apparently just another dodge.

You can use MyCheckFree.com to pay your bill, but not if it's due less than two days away. You can't pay MyCheckFree on Thursday night for a payment that's due on Saturday. Little ol' Exxon just doesn't have the technology to carry out as complicated a job as that, and besides, they'd rather have your $35 late fee. Pay three days early or forget it.

Contrast that to the policy on Macy's Visa and store cards, which not only allow same-day-as-due payments (until 4:45 p.m.), but automatically gives customers a five-day grace period. ExxonMobil's never heard of "grace." Like a fat, clumsy, ill-tempered oaf who just wants his money (at 31 percent interest, too) on the spot, the company demands to get paid early or else.

This is yet another example of what I call the "hate-your customer" syndrome. Companies like US Bank, that hide their overlimit fees amid the gobbledy-gook on their bills and don't say (unless you call them by phone) how much you must pay to avoid an overlimit fee, must detest the people they loan money to, and the feeling is surely mutual.

I am confronted today by ExxonMobil's impenetrable systems as I try to pay a $16 credit card charge. Today is March Thursday 15, and at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, MyCheckFree won't permit payment until March 19, two days after it is due. Most other billers accepts a next-day or even same-day payment before 4 and sometimes 5 p.m.

I go to the bewildering ExxonMobil Website, which is carefully written in 6-pt, grayed-out type invisible to most people over 50, and read about their e-kiosks for paying bills. The ad copy says you can pay all sorts of bills and send Western Union Moneygrams, but it carefully omits mentioning ExxonPayment consumer-card bills.

I use the laborious Exxon "On the Run" store locator to look up the number of one down the street from me. The phone is answered on the 25th ring, and a girl who sounds scared says she will find out for me whether i can pay my bills there, and then hangs up the phone. I call back, and the phone rings 40 times and finally cuts off. I call back a third time and another woman answers; "No," she says. "No." "No." You can't pay your bills at the store or the e-kiosk (Best Buy also will not accept in-store payments - even though rival Circuit City does - apparently fearing that employees will steal them). I have no confidence that what she says is true, but I am certain that if I went there she would be just as rattled.

On Friday. March 16, as I call for comment again during normal business hours, I still hit voicemail at 1:30 at the ExxonMobil media relations department, and they hadn't returned my call by 7:30 p.m. Meanwhile, I stopped by the store and was told by the manager that the e-kiosks ExxonMobil says (again, on the Website) are available have not yet been installed on the West Coast of Florida, but are "coming soon" and will be able to take ExxonMobil consumer credit-card payments.

The manager couldn't give me a number for ExxonMobil because he didn't have their credit card (and mine was in my wife's purse); he never dealt with the corporate folks, he said, just the people who run the stores. As we talked, the poor fellow's employees were flaking out on him, calling to say they either weren't coming and or would be late. But unasked, his helpful cashier looked up a number in Exxon's application brochure for their Speedpass, telling me I could call that number and pay there by telephone.

I called it, but couldn't pay there; I was quickly transferred to the credit division, though, and after just 18 minutes on hold, I was allowed to pay my bill a day early over the phone for just an $8 fee (please note the deadpan humor). The hold was so long, they said, because the credit-card division of ExxonMobil - like that of many other companies, by the way - is being "transitioned" to Citibank, which had sent out notices to both current and former customers; now, thousands of the latter were calling in fear that their identities had been stolen and their cars had been re-issued to someone else. Exxon (the largest company on Earth, with $9 billion in profits in the last quarter) apparently can't afford extra lines and operators to handle these calls.

The problems with MyCheckFree were also being "transitioned," the very nice operator said, as Exxon is going to quit doing business with them and let Citibank handle all of the billing and payments. Her apology for the long wait and runaround was much appreciated.

I paid $30 on the $16 bill, just to get a $6 bucks ahead of it, and hung up my cellphone after a total of 30 overtime Sprint minutes (at $0.45 a minute), and I figure that counting the trip to the store, the exercise of paying my bill online cost me two hours of aggravation and about $21.25. But I finally finished this story and got the bill paid on time so my credit score won't be further damaged, hiking my interest rates even more.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who for my money is the best of all the presidential candidates now out there, is holding hearings on credit-card and mortgage-lending abuses in his Senate Banking and Finance Committee, and there is a fair chance that - dishonest as the Senate is on the issues that affect big banks - there may yet be legislation that will rein in the $79 billion late payment fees credit card companies issuers collect yearly - up from around $0.00 10 or 15 years ago. In other words, they invented a way to make huge amounts of money without doing any appreciable extra work, and in some cases, I believe, by making it more difficult to pay your bills at the last minute, which is when harried middle-class folks like myself usually have to pay [Listen to my interview with Sen. Dodd below].

My guess is that if you laid out a curve indicating when most people have the money to pay their overlimit fee and late payment fee and the 31 percent interest charge - along with the increased minimum payments Congress has mandated - there would be a small but growing number who slide to the last few days. These people get beat out of the late fees or the pay-by-phone fees, which are $14 at Macy's Visa, and they cough up $79 billion wasted dollars in the process.

Unfortunately, I have not yet heard any concrete proposals from Sen. Dodd or anyone else to deal with these issues. Maybe I am being unrealistic even in thinking they will do something, but I hope not.

In the meantime, though, It's my own belief that consumers should do everything they can to harass and disrupt - within the letter of the law - the operations of the predatory lenders that suck them dry by charging onerous fees at every opportunity - but that's just me.

Editor's Note: Following this article, ExxonMobil dramatically improved its Website, providing telephone numbers for bill-payers and other customers at the very first page of the Personal Card site.

[Interview with U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, April 25, 2007]

This is one in an occasional series of articles on credit card debt from the perspective of one debtor. Access the others by using Control+F and searching for "Dungeons of Debt" (omit the quotes). Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter and currently has a credit score of 653.

Copyright 2007 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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