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May 26, 2014

Barclaycard Ring: A Transparent (?) Social Credit Card

Filed under: Finance,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:49 am

barclaycard ring  From the lost archive of unpublished Mouse Print* stories…

To appeal to 20- and 30-somethings, Barclays Bank introduced a new credit card in 2012 called the Barclaycard Ring. They said it was “the first social credit card to be designed and built through the power of community crowdsourcing.” In other words, cardholders will have input into the features, benefits, and pricing of the card.

A bank official put it this way: “Through simple and transparent terms [emphasis added], we want to pull back the curtain that has traditionally separated banks from their customers and give our community a say in weighing economic tradeoffs that can create a better cardholder experience.”

Their website went on to say: “Being candid starts with using straightforward language without the confusing legalese. But we’re taking it a step further. For the first time ever, we’re going to give you a look at our profit and loss statement, [emphasis added] which shows you how we make money from Barclaycard Ring. And with Giveback™, you’ll even get to keep some of the profits for yourself.”

This credit card sounds like something created by hippies (oops, MrConsumer is dating himself) rather than a stodgy, money-grubbing bank, doesn’t it?

*MOUSE PRINT:

The terms and conditions statement for the card, which indeed has been simplified, explains how cardholders will (or won’t) be able to see the bank’s profit and loss statement:

This profit sharing feature is not based on the actual profits of the program. Instead, the Giveback™ program contains a transparent calculation that is used to determine what will be shared with the community members and which may or may not approximate actual profits. The Giveback™ program and the profit sharing features are offered at our sole discretion. We may discontinue the program at anytime.

Oh, so you really don’t get to look at the profit and loss statement, and the bank can decide on its own to stop the profit sharing plan. Nice.

2014 Update: Checking the bank’s first annual report, and the quarterly ones through March 2014, it appears the card has not returned any money under their profit sharing Giveback program. (They have given a small amount to charity, however.) It appears that they require their annual return to exceed 3% before they rebate money to cardholders.

*MOUSE PRINT:

The bank makes a big deal about offering a low 8% variable APR, as well they should. When you look at the fine print, however, how that rate is calculated gets a little murky.

The APRs on your account will be determined each billing cycle by adding a margin to the Prime Rate (which will be the highest rate published in the Money Rates column of The Wall Street Journal on the last business day of each month). See your Cardmember Agreement for more detail.

Excuse me, I thought this bank was supposed to believe in transparency. Exactly how much above the prime rate is the bank going to charge? It would be nice to disclose it in advance.

2014 Update: The bank now discloses on the homepage and in its terms and conditions that a margin of 4.75% will be added to the prime rate in order to come up with the actual finance charge that will be assessed.

Lastly, the bank maintains a message forum for cardholders where a recent topic of concern was whether the bank was going to raise its 8% rate. A product manager for the credit card addressed that issue in a blog post, saying in part:

The last thing we want to do is change the APR that the community likes so much. My legal team will never let me say never, but our intention is to never change the 8% variable APR.

Hello? (to both the product manager and cardholders.) This is a VARIABLE rate card, which by definition does not have a fixed rate, but one that changes monthly, according to the prime rate and the terms and conditions.

Barclays has come up with a very clever marketing scheme which will no doubt attract a certain type of user. For his part, MrConsumer will just stick with his 2% back card from Fidelity/Bank of America, and let them keep the rest of the profit, if any.

• • •

January 27, 2014

Office Depot Offers $800 of “Free” (?) Software

Filed under: Computers,Electronics,Finance,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:58 am

  Every year, the office supply superstores offer either cash rebates or free software as an inducement to buy tax preparation software (like TurboTax and H&R Block) from their store.

This year, as in previous years, Office Depot is making a generous offer of $800 of free software.

Office Depot

But, according to Mouse Print* reader WAE, the promised rebates did not cover the full purchase price of some of the software titles.

Checking the Office Depot website for the purchase price and the promised rebate revealed he was right!

*MOUSE PRINT:


Office Depot
[Click reconstructed image above to enlarge, then click again]

Mouse Print* wrote to Office Depot’s media relations department asking them why they were charging money for supposedly free software and how they were going to correct the problem for customers they overcharged.

Office Depot did not respond.

• • •

September 2, 2013

Inside the NY-AG’s Lawsuit Suing Donald Trump Over “Trump University”

Filed under: Business,Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:46 am

Last week, the New York Attorney General sued Donald Trump and others claiming a host of illegal practices engaged in by Trump University, the Donald’s real estate education program.

Among the AG’s allegations (and some things you didn’t hear in the news):

  • Students were induced to sign up for classes under the belief they would be taught Donald Trump’s personal strategies and techniques for investing in real estate. The material in the courses was never reviewed by Donald Trump and actually came from other seminars and courses about real estate. It also did not include some of the topics specifically advertised.
  • Trump’s free education seminar was really a sales pitch for a $1495 three-day course. His three-day program was itself in part an upsell sales pitch for an elite course costing up to $35,000. Trump University claimed this was a philanthropic endeavor that Trump would not profit from. In fact, they took in $40 million in sales, and Trump himself pocketed some $5 million in profits.
  • Trump University was repeatedly told by the New York State Education Department as far back as 2005 that it needed to be licensed and could not use the term “university” in its name. They didn’t change the name, however, until 2010.
  • Trump claimed in advertisements that he handpicked the instructors/mentors in the program, when he never did.
  • There were claims that the instructors were real estate experts, when some of them had just filed for real estate-related bankruptcies.
  • Students were told they would easily and quickly make back the money they spent on courses because mentors would in essence hold their hand through their first transaction. Mentors, however, disappeared after the course was over in some cases and students were left with significant credit card debt for the classes.
  • After the lawsuit was filed, Donald Trump defended the educational program saying that students filled out an evaluation and 98% said they were satisfied. What Trump didn’t say, and what the NY-AG alleges in his complaint, is that students filled out the non-anonymous evaluations before the course was over, were pressured to give the course good grades, and in some cases negative evaluations were changed to positive ones by staff.

And it goes on and on.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Here is a link to the actual complaint filed by the New York AG, with great detail about the promises made, and what was really going on behind the scenes. For example, most of the instructors/mentors were paid commissions based on the number of students they convinced to pay for the advanced seminars.

It is fascinating reading beginning to end. [Click the icon in the bottom right corner below to see the complaint full screen.]

• • •

April 15, 2013

Debt Collectors Masquerade as Local DAs with Their Blessing

Filed under: Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:20 am

Imagine the fright you would feel if you check your mail and see a letter from the IRS Audit Division. You might experience a similar sinking feeling getting an envelope from the local district attorney suggesting some wrongdoing on your part.

envelope

When you open the envelope, inside is a letter from the district attorney on his letterhead, official seal and all, that proclaims “Official Notice – Immediate Attention Required.” It goes to say that you have been accused of bouncing a check, and that according to the criminal law of your particular state, you could be imprisoned for up to X years and face a fine of Y dollars. However, if you participate in the “Bad Check Restitution Program,” repay all the money, take a class on financial responsibility, and pay a variety of fees, the district attorney will drop any criminal charges it could file against you and consider the case closed.

Here is page one of a sample four-page letter (click to enlarge) similar to ones used by about 140 DAs in 13 states:

DA letter

In your fright, you probably didn’t read the letter carefully, and may have missed a key point:

*MOUSE PRINT:

“The Bad Check Restitution Program is administered by a private entity under contract with the XXX County District Attorney.”

So this letter is NOT actually from the local district attorney, but rather from a private debt collection company that is using the stationery of the local DA to very effectively scare the you-know-what out of the recipient as a means of collecting the debt (and their fees).

Speaking of their fees, this is a very lucrative business for these debt collectors, and most of the DAs even get a small cut of the proceeds. In one Massachusetts county, for example, when fees are added, the cost of bouncing a check could inflate the total you owe to two or three times the original check amount.

Cost Triples

This can’t be legal, you are probably saying. Well, the district attorneys and the private debt collectors in this line of business lobbied Congress, and received an exemption from the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. That law actually makes illegal many of the practices allegedly engaged in by these people. For example, using envelopes that disclose that the contents relate to a debt, threatening arrest or criminal prosecution when such action is not actually taken or contemplated, impersonating a law enforcement agency, and charging fees beyond those disclosed in the original contract are all prohibited practices.

Some state laws have their own debt collection laws with similar provisions, and it appears that these bad check programs may be running afoul of them in some cases.

The Boston Globe [alternate link] just published the results of its four-month investigation into the practices of the DAs and their debt collection companies in Massachusetts. And the New York Times looked at the workings of these programs across the country. Be sure to look at the graphics in the NY Times story for copies of the actual letters sent to check bouncers.

• • •

December 3, 2012

AMEX Allows You to Opt-Out of Mandatory Arbitration

Filed under: Finance — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:35 am

In a rather unusual move, American Express is letting cardholders opt-out of the mandatory arbitration provision in their credit card agreements.

*MOUSE PRINT:

AMEX

The rejection notice (a sample is here) must be mailed by February 15, 2013 or 45 days after you make your first purchase with the card, whichever is later.

They are also instituting a mediation program to resolve disputes. But, the new agreement requires if you are not able to resolve the problem with customer service, that you file a notice with them before resorting to mediation, arbitration or court.

Why did AMEX decide to let you opt-out of required arbitration?

One consumer lawyer put it this way: “Just another attempt to make the arbitration provision bulletproof. What could be fairer than giving consumers the choice to opt-out?”

Everyone knows that opt-out rates are very low, and since there is a relatively short deadline, few people are likely to do it. The result: virtually all cardholders will be left without the legal remedy of going to court over a major problem (or be part of a class action for smaller but widespread issues).

• • •
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