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Getting the runaround when your good credit is at risk

April 26, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

President Obama declared last week that credit card companies must end "unfair rate increases" and "abusive fees and penalties."

Meanwhile, the House Financial Services Committee approved a "credit cardholders' bill of rights" intended to rein in interest rates and require better disclosure of credit card terms.

All well and good. And the card industry said it's open to working with the president and lawmakers on possible changes.

But if the pooh-bahs of plastic are serious about being consumers' buddies, they need to do only one thing: play fair.

That's exactly how they didn't treat Los Angeles resident Igor Ridanovic -- whether because a card issuer deliberately wanted to get rid of him or because of some sort of clerical glitch.

His story illustrates the challenge of dealing with an industry that simply doesn't seem to like its customers very much.

Ridanovic, 39, signed up for an American Express card in 2006 through his Costco membership. He figured it'd be nice to have an AmEx card. And AmEx welcomed Ridanovic as a customer.

At least at first.

The first letter arrived last fall. AmEx wanted to let Ridanovic know that his original $18,400 credit limit was being cut to $1,100 because of a "serious delinquency" having to do with his credit reports.

"I had no idea what they meant by this," Ridanovic told me. "I checked my credit reports. There was nothing wrong with them."

He's not what you'd call the biggest credit risk. Ridanovic, who does postproduction for movies and television shows, had only two other credit cards and never missed a payment. He has a mortgage, which he pays regularly, but no auto loan and no outstanding college loans.

You'd think he was the kind of customer credit card companies would be falling over one another trying to attract.

Ridanovic wrote to AmEx seeking an explanation. He included a copy of his Experian credit report listing his AmEx card as being among "accounts in good standing." It showed no delinquencies, missed payments or unusual debt.

AmEx replied a couple of weeks later with a letter saying that the company was "unable to reverse this decision." It added that "we continue to value your business and look forward to serving you in the future."

But not for much longer. In December, the company contacted Ridanovic to say that it was once again cutting his credit limit, this time to $600. It again cited a "serious delinquency" in his credit report.

This month, AmEx wrote again to say that it was canceling Ridanovic's card. It said it was still worried about that "serious delinquency" in his credit file that apparently no one but AmEx could see.

It also noted that "the balance on your American Express account is too high relative to your credit limit."

"What did they expect?" an incredulous Ridanovic asked. "Of course my balance was now higher relative to my credit limit after cutting my limit twice. It seems like they deliberately created the circumstances they needed to be able to close down the account."

Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for the watchdog group Consumer Action, said that what happened to Ridanovic isn't uncommon.

"A lot of people with good credit have been getting their credit limits slashed, and some are having their cards canceled," she said. "It seems like the card issuers are pulling back and reducing the amount of loans they're making."

In part, this is because lenders are protecting themselves from rising delinquencies as a result of the recession.

Write-downs of credit card debt soared to a record 8.82% in February. According to the Federal Reserve, about 45% of U.S. banks reduced credit limits for new or existing credit card customers in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Many of these same banks have received more than $120 billion in taxpayer-funded bailouts since October.

Desiree Fish, an AmEx spokeswoman, said she couldn't comment on a specific cardholder's account. But she acknowledged that a number of customers have had their credit limits reduced or cards canceled in recent weeks.

"With the economic situation we're in, we have to make sure we're managing our risk prudently," Fish said.

She said some customers have contacted AmEx asking why the company is playing rough. In each case, Fish said, a service rep will review the customer's file and explain the reasons for any action taken.

But Ridanovic said he got nowhere asking the company for a detailed explanation of why he had the incredible shrinking credit limit. "I finally just gave up," he said.

That's not a good idea, especially once AmEx canceled his card.

"That's a bad thing to have on your credit record," said Sherry at Consumer Action. "It can cause your credit score to go down."

She advised Ridanovic to contact AmEx again and work his way up the service-rep food chain to a supervisor who could actually deal with his situation.

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