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form letter indicated that it would do so. The card arrived after he had paid the amount due on his account-less the renewal fee—and sent off an inquiry about the card. The next bill showed the new charges, as well as the $15.00, to be due. It also contained a notice that the account was overdue. The professor paid the account in full this time, the card having since arrived. He also sent a form letter to the ostensible signer of the form "overdue notice,'' protesting the receipt of a form notice, since he had written to inform the company that the renewal card had not been received at the time of the previous payment. At this point, it would be reasonable to assume that the matter had been straightened out with payment of the full balance due. Not so. The customer next received another overdue notice, stating that the next statement would carry a “SERIOUSLY PASTDUE" status, which the now irate gentleman considered to be a threat to his credit status. He wrote to American Express President William H. Morton:
we have here a classical example of the inability of the human individual to deal with a computer. This whole situation has the elements of comedy in it, the hapless citizen coping with a computer that refuses to listen to reason. Added to this, however, is the very real failure of American Express to respond to repeated written inquiries and explanations. None of my letters
has elicited any rea on." Consumers may be driven to drastic measures in getting their accounts clarified-one method is simply closing the account. A couple in San Vicente, California found this necessary when Diners Club continued to bill them for flowers from a florist and gasoline from an oil company, with whom they had never dealt. Their genuine efforts and substantial expenditure of time and patience in attempting to correct the error went unrewarded. A letter to Diners Club brought forth only the identification of the florist, but no supporting sales documents for either transaction. When the wife attempted to call the person who had signed the explanatory letter and cards, she was informed that Diners Club credit correspondents do not take telephone calls. She was permitted to explain the situation to another employee who was not responsible for handling her file. This brought forth further postcards informing her that the charges were made at another florist in another city than originally stated. Continued "fill in the form" correspondence from the company failed to clarify the matter or to document the transactions, so that when this couple was billed for their annual renewal fee, they declined to renew their Diners Club account. As they wrote to Diners Club President R. Newell Lusby :
Diners Club has caused me great inconvenience in attempting to pay my bills on time. Also, I do not have the time for the many phone calls and correspondence involved with trying to keep the accounting straight. Diners
Club cannot repay me for my time and effort in this matter. Under $ 161(a) (3(B) (ii) of S. 914, and § 161(d) the creditor would have been unable to collect the amount in dispute—which might have been a disincentive for its having handled the account in the manner which it did. It should be noted also that handling accounts in a manner so unsatisfactory that customers cancel them-or simply do not use them unless necessary-is detrimental not only to the customer, but also to the card issuer's stockholders.
In short, Mr. Chairman, we believe that the billing error provisions of S. 914 will do much to alleviate a most unsatisfactory situation. We offer only one comment on the differences between the "billing error" provisions of S. 914 and S. 1630. The former bill—S. 914-specifically deals with the situation where "the obligor alleges that the creditor's billing statement reflects goods not delivered to the obligor or his designee in accordance with the agreement made at the time of the transaction." This provision-in $ 161(a) (3) (B) (ii)-states that the creditor may not construe the amount questioned by the customer to be correctly billed unless "he determines that such goods were actually delivered, mailed, or otherwise sent to the obligor and provides the obligor with copies of documentary evidence thereof." S. 1630 does not contain this language. We believe that the additional language is appropriate and fair, and we support it.
This provision should, however, go further. It should require that the creditor "not construe such amount to be correctly shown unless he determines that such goods were actually delivered" at all. This would cover the instance of the unordered and undelivered flowers in the last situation, Mr. Chairman. And this situation seems to becoming more common, according to the mail we receive at Consumer Union. Let us provide a few examples :
A consumer made a gasoline purchase and, in his next Master Charge billing received a billing for a purchase from the same station-but the "hard copy” receipt number enclosed in the bill was three numbers higher than the customer's tissue copy he had retained. He was billed $8.00 instead of the $6.43 shown on the tissue copy. The purchase was itemized as 17.3 gallons of gas, but his auto tank only holds 16.0 gallons.
A Mobil Oil Corporation cardholder was billed for a gasoline purchase, and the evidence of the transaction bore an incorrect address, city, and dealer number for the dealer whose name appeared on the bill. The ticket was unsigned and the dealer had no record of the purchase. The customer was billed for $6.35.
Another Mobil Oil customer was billed for 20.2 gallons of gasoline; her Dodge Dart does not hold that much gasoline. Comparison of the tissue copy with the hard copy suggests that “10.2” was changed to "20.2" gallons, and
that "$3.45" was changed to "$8.45.” Some of these matters may have been promptly resolved. The charge for undelivered flowers certainly was not. We recommend that $ 161 be amended to cover this situation.
REGULATION OF CREDIT REPORTS
We believe that $ 162 in both S. 914 and S. 1630 is necessary to protect consumers from being subjected to adverse credit reports for non-payment of amounts validly disputed as billing errors. Consumer Union's reader correspondence includes letters from cardholders who have been the subject of adverse reports in just such situations. One CU reader even took the precaution of informing the local credit reporting agency simultaneously with his notice to a card issuer that he was withholding payment of an erroneously billed charge pending clarification.
LENGTH OF BILLING PERIOD
When I was at the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Consumer Credit, enforcing the Truth-in-Lending Act, the so-called "shrinking billing period" problem was the subject of more consumer complaints than any other credit subject-save one, the “previous balance" method of computing finance charge. Since that time, I have had little opportunity to measure first hand the degree to which that problem still persists to so great a degree. The problem involves, in some instances, mailing of the cardholder's bill so late that it was impossible for the bill to have been paid by the payment deadline, even had the mailman been met at the door and sent away with the customer's payment. More commonly, the customer had more time than that, but still so little time that if she or he had to wait a week to deposit the next paycheck before writing a check to the creditor, timely payment could still not be made. As I previously indicated in testimony on S. 652, the problem for many people is simply a matter of coordinating bills received with periodic income receipts. Viewing the problem realistically, this becomes more possible and reasonable to expect if the creditor “splits" the billing period approximately in half.—The first half permits the creditor to process payments received by the deadline, to generate a bill, and to process and mail that bill. The second half remains for transmission of the bill to and from the customer and to permit the customer to coordinate income receipts with debt payment. This does not, of course, assure that a cardholder who receives a bill immediately after a paycheck has been received and probably completely depleted to await the next paycheck and still make the payment on time. It does mean that a person who is paid on a bi-weekly basis can coordinate income received and bills paid, assuming reasonable planning of the family budget. The fourteen days permitted in this legislation for the creditor to process and mail should also be sufficient. The equal division of the billing periods is both equitable and feasible.
PROHIBITION OF RETROACTIVE FINANCE CHARGES
The largest volume of mail received by the Federal Trade Commission staff during the initial effective period of the Truth-in-Lending Act concerned, as I have indicated, the use of the “previous balance method" of computing finance charges. The problem was of such great consumer concern that the FTC issued a "Consumer Credit Policy Statement", informing the public about the additional costs which could result from use of this method of computing finance charges.
A basis principle of fairness in the computation of finance charges dictates that consumers not be required to pay finance charges on any portion of an obligation after that portion has been repaid. This principle is recognized in the Congressional prescription for use of the actuarial method of computing the annual percentage rate in closed end transactions, and an adaption of that method for open end credit.
Among arguments which may be advanced in opposition to this provison may be that the loss of revenues due to lessened finance charges generated under other methods of computation will cause retailers' credit operations not to pay for themselve. That is, credit department revenues will no longer equal the costs of operating the credit department. The implication is that the credit operations will no longer be profitable to these creditors. This is simply a matter of corporate bookkeeping. The reason for the extension of credit by retailers is to increase sales volume. The normal accounting system, however, gives the credit department any credit on the “black ink" side of the ledger for volume generated. Thus, this argument against prohibiting use of the “previous balance method" really boils down to an argument that a basically unfair computerized method should be retained to preserve a method of corporate bookkeeping.
We strongly urge adoption of § 167, as set forth in S. 914.
RIGHTS OF CREDIT CARD CUSTOMERS Section 172 of S. 914 would preserve, in specified categories of transactions, those same rights of credit card customers against third parties honoring the issuer's card. (We recommend adoption of language identical to that used in Section 169, to clarify the applicability of $ 172 to third party transactions. We support this provision, because it is basically unfair for a creditor to promote the use of its card on the basis of its broad acceptance by vendors of goods and services, and then to insist on payment for transactions where one of those vendors conducts a transaction in such a manner as to create legal defense against payment of debt. The card issuer who seeks to avoid such defenses wants the benefits of such wide acceptance of its card without any of the risks. The card issuer should be at least as careful in authorizing parties to accept its card as it would be in extending substantial amounts of credit. Beyond that, the authorized third party acceptor of the issuer's card is implicitly represented to be considered responsible and reliable by the issuer, and consumers should be entitled to rely on that implicit representation.
We are concerned, however, about the limitations of $ 172 to transactions exceeding $50 and taking place in a state where the card issuer maintains a place of business. First, if a third party in some state where the issuer does not maintain a place of business is authorized to accept the issuer's card, the issuer should bear risk as well as accept benefit. A major inducement to become the holder of the issuer's card is the wide acceptance of that card. At least one major national card issuer presently advertises the wide acceptance of its card as an advantage over a competing card. Implicit in this claim is the wide geographic, as well as vendor category, acceptance of the card. The total message, whether or not made explicitly, in many card promotions, is that they are usable in in a broad range of establishments all over the nation. Card issuers should stand behind those whom they authorize to accept their cards.
Likewise, the $50 requirement does not seem to be justified on the basis of the manner in which many persons use credit cards. While more expensive items may be charged on such cards, it would not be unusual for a cardholder on a single shopping or business trip to make a variety of purchases totaling several times the $50 requirement, but for none of the purchases to equal that required amount. If a required amount is necessary to prevent card issuers from being constantly involved in disputes over trivial sums, $10 would seem much more reasonable and fair.
LIMITATION ON CLASS ACTIONS
Section 208 would limit creditors' liability in Truth-In-Lending civil penalty class actions to $50,000 or one per centum of the net worth of the creditor, whichever is greater. This provision is, needless to say, problematic to consumers. On the one hand, a potential recovery of less than about $100 per plaintiff is not enough to induce most consumers to enforce their legal rights in the courts. On the other, the large amounts of liability resulting from Truth-in-Lending violations—which do not represent actual damages-have discouraged at least one court from finding that a class action is an appropriate means of redress, and may also substantially exceed the amounts necessary to discourage creditors from engaging in negligent violations. For example, in Ratner v. Chemical Bank New York Trust Co., (S. Dist. N.Y., 1972), reported at 551 ATTR EI, Judge Frankel stated as one specific reason for disallowing the class action :
the allowance of thousands of minimum recoveries like plaintiff's would carry to an absurd and stiltifying extreme the specific and essentially in
consistent remedy Congress prescribed as the means of private enforcement. Defendant's potential liability in Ratner would have been $1.3 million, had a class action been successfully litigated.
The choice is truly a Hobson's choice for consumers. We suggest that, at the very least, any limitation on amount of liability in class actions include a provision that the courts not disallow the finding of a class on the basis of the amount of defendant's potential liability.
The limitation of $100,000, as proposed in 213 of S. 1630, without a one percentum provision to discourage negligent violations by large creditors, is simply unworkable. There is simply no reason to believe that this amount would be any deterrent to a creditor with billions of dollars in assets. If a limit on recovery is to be set, the one per centum provision is absolutely necessary.
Mr. Chairman, the bills under consideration are extensive. I have touched on the issues which I consider to be of greatest concern. If Consumers Union can provide views on other sections which you feel would be of assistance to the Committee, we will be pleased to submit them for the record. Your invitation to present our views before this distinguished committee is appreciated. Thank you.
INACCURATE AND UNFAIR BILLING PRACTICES
WEDNESDAY, MAY 23, 1973
U.S. SENATE, COMMITTEE ON BANKING, HOUSING AND URBAN AFFAIRS, SUBCOMMITTEE ON CONSUMER CREDIT,
Washington, D.C. The subcommittee convened at 10:05 a.m. in room 5302, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Senator Proxmire, presiding.
Senator PROXMIRE. The subcommittee will come to order.
Our first witness this morning is Mr. George Buchanan, representing the Air Transport Association.
STATEMENT OF GEORGE A. BUCHANAN, AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCI
ATION OF AMERICA, REPRESENTING THE UNIVERSAL AIR TRAVEL PLAN, ACCOMPANIED BY JEROME F. HUISENTRUIT, ASSISTANT GENERAL COUNSEL OF ATA AND COUNSEL FOR THE UNIVERSAL AIR TRAVEL PLAN
Senator PROXMIRE. Mr. Buchanan, we are happy to have you. You have an eight-page statement. We have a number of witnesses this morning, as you may know. We have six. You do have, I am happy to say, a concise statement. I imagine it will take you about 10 minutes; is that right?
Mr. BUCHANAN. I believe so, Mr. Chairman. Senator PROXMIRE. Go ahead. Mr. BUCHANAN. I appreciate the opportunity to appear here to offer the comments of the member airlines of the Universal Air Travel Plan. I do have a short statement that I have submitted, and I would appreciate it if it could be included in the record. I will try to summarize the high points of that statement.
For purposes of identification, my name is George Buchanan. I am vice president—traffic of the Air Transport Association of America and secretary of the Universal Air Travel Plan. With me today is Mr. Jerome F. Huisentruit, assistant general counsel of ATA and counsel for the Universal Air Travel Plan.
The Air Transport Association of America is the trade association of the U.S.-scheduled airlines. The Universal Air Travel Plan is a joint credit card program of U.S. and foreign scheduled airlines. Administrative services are provided by members of the ATA staff for the plan, which I am representing today.
We appreciate this opportunity to testify on the two bills that are being considered by this subcommittee, s. 914 and S. 1630. We will concentrate our comments on section 210 of S. 914 which would remove