Since January I have spent hours helping a neighbor whose attempts to pay his creditor, GE Money (doing business as CareCredit), were all being headed off. Whether he used the website or the telephone, he was unable to complete the transaction, and was in danger of expensive penalties. Reaching a customer service rep required unusual persistence, and once he did so, the employees were consistently unhelpful, besides being alternately hostile and contemptuous.
After research, I formed the following hypothesis:
GE Money Bank formed CareCredit, and tricked it out to look like a nonprofit, in order to mislead elderly, inexperienced, or otherwise vulnerable customers into signing up for a credit card that is easy to acquire but difficult to make timely payments on. This results in crippling penalties and interest on what is touted as an “interest-free” credit option. Instead of helping customers pay their health-care bills, CareCredit is more likely to punish customers with extra expenses.
As the president and congressional leaders meet today on financial regulation, I offer this story as evidence of which direction we need to be going now. It is not in our national interest to allow banks to take customers for everything they can get, while “denying any wrongdoing.” We need an independent financial consumer protection agency with the power to intervene in the interest of consumers.
The pretty front door
My neighbor, who still works part time at age 70, had signed up for CareCredit in January to help with expensive dental bills. CareCredit has a lovely website that promised “no interest” health-care payment options.
There was a catch, of course, but you had to look closely to spot it. The asterisk next to “no interest” referred to a footnote that faded almost into invisibility.
The financial reforms that took effect in February have had an effect on CareCredit. The company no longer claims to charge “no interest” — at least, not as prominently as it used to. And it is forced to disclose on the front page what used to be buried behind several links: CareCredit is nothing more than a credit card for certain medical bills.
My neighbor signed up without realizing this, under the impression that CareCredit was some kind of non-profit, helping people on limited incomes pay for their health care at no additional cost to them — you know, because they care. Just look at the website’s lovely “resource center” which appears to be brimming over with love for humanity.
Even now, after new laws took effect, CareCredit adheres to the letter of federal law while violating its spirit. It does its best to avoid calling attention to what it really is. It is still easy to apply for the credit card without realizing that it is a credit card.
The application process takes you through a set of steps that involve looking up local health-care practices that accept the card, something like a health insurance plan. This steers the customer toward the impression that CareCredit is a “caring,” nonprofit service, more like Medicare than Citibank.
To find the credit terms, the customer must look under “Frequently Asked Questions” and click a small gray-on-gray link (only slightly easier to find than it was in January).
Click on it and the whole screen goes ominously dark, except for a window full of confusing, incomplete sentences laden with jargon. It’s a very striking effect, and gives the user a sense of having done something wrong. Even I felt tempted to close the window without reading it!
The text in this window appears to be deliberately confusing. Consider that headline for a start. No interest if what is paid? The balance, presumably. But how long do I have? Is it 3, 6, 12, or 18? And are those months, weeks, or days? It is only with considerable labor that one can come up with a tentative answer to these questions. And there is of course no obvious way to copy or save this text for future reference.
No wonder my neighbor was so surprised to find out that he had signed up for a credit card. And now he was having trouble paying it off — not because he didn’t have the money, but because the company was making it difficult.
No way to contact them
I spoke to a customer service rep about the fact that my neighbor’s web browser could not complete the payment transaction. Another rep had already told him that the transactions can only be completed in Internet Explorer — a browser that is not even available for the Mac operating system, which he uses. (Running a website that only supports Windows PCs is like running a drive-through that only serves Big Three automobile makes.)
Anyway I was told a different story: Some customers have had technical problems logging in to the website with Firefox, but have had no trouble with Internet Explorer. I asked about the nature of these technical problems. “Something to do with security,” the employee said.
Given the checkered history of the Internet Explorer browser (and other Microsoft vulnerabilities, a drama that is updated monthly), I found this explanation rather unlikely. It seemed more likely that CareCredit had not designed the site according to web standards, but had been satisfied when the site worked on their computers. Or could it be that they were satisfied with conditions that made it difficult for customers to complete their payments?
When I asked for a way to contact either the tech support or web staff, I was told that “there is no way to contact” any of those people.
To sum up, our consistent experience with CareCredit reps has been that they do nothing to help customers complete payments — unless they can charge extra for it — but they are full of reasons why customers should blame themselves or their computers for failure to complete a transaction.
Fear, uncertainty, and doubt
My neighbor, in an extraordinary gesture of trust, finally gave me his account information and other personal details so I could try to make the payment from my computer. Using a Mac and the Firefox browser, I was able to complete the transaction easily enough, despite some confusing forms and intimidating looking pages. Here, for example, is the one that offered to collect and store the computer’s IP address in order to identify it.
Besides intimidating customers who don’t have a technical background, this screen describes what strikes me as a particularly bone-headed way to try to identify a customer’s computer, given that most residential Internet users are assigned a different IP address every time they log on. Besides, the wordy prompt does not explain why the customer is given a choice in the first place, or that it might be a bad idea to select “yes” if one is using a computer that one does not own. Anyhow, it wasn’t enough to say “no” once. I saw this screen twice during the payment process.
I could go on, but the end of the story is that my neighbor and I worked out a means of assuring that he will be able to make his monthly payments, using his own computer, in time to avoid penalties. I suppose the federal reforms that took effect in February make it a little less likely that GE Money will be able to pull a fast one on him, as long as we stay alert.
My neighbor is better off than customers who were equally duped by the website, then succumbed to the company reps’ belittling treatment and blamed themselves for their inability to pay their bills in time to avoid penalties. People like those are a credit card company’s bread and butter. It’s a disgusting, exploitative business model that should be criminalized alongside human trafficking.
This experience shows how elderly or inexperienced consumers in the United States remain vulnerable to the predation of banks and financial corporations. There is still a great deal of need for reform, and not just piddling, make-believe reform. The members of Congress know this as well as anyone, but it’s the bankers who have squads of lobbyists working Capitol Hill today. Which way will Congress turn?