When a former bank executive gets the shaft from a big bank, it's tempting to see this as a satisfying turn of the karmic wheel. But I'm not mean-spirited, so I'll just say, "Welcome to the consumer club, dude."
Michael Chee, 44, used to be a senior spokesguy at Bank of America. He and I dealt with each other on a number of columns.
These days, Chee handles communications for White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles. But it's his status as a Capital One credit card customer that's pertinent here.
And his story highlights the importance of reading the fine print that typically accompanies bank mailings. Not doing so can lead to big changes to your account.
"It's death by a thousand paper cuts," Chee told me. "This is how banks try to slip things past customers."
He received a new card from Cap One this month. The bank didn't say why his card was being replaced, just that he was being issued new plastic "filled with lots of great features to help you make the most of your account."
Chee wasn't sure at first why he was getting a new card. Both his old and new cards expire in 2013, so that wasn't it. There was no mention of a security breach or suspected fraud in the mailing, so that wasn't it either.
"It took me a minute to notice the difference," Chee said. "The rewards writing was gone."
On his old card, it says "no hassle rewards" on the front of the card, meaning that each transaction using the card qualified him for rewards points. On the new card, nada. It isn't a rewards card.
Chee called Cap One. The first service rep he reached couldn't explain why he'd received a new card. The second one also had no explanation.
It wasn't until Chee reached a third service rep that he was told he'd been issued a new card because he had opted out of Cap One's rewards program in late 2009.
This was news to Chee. He didn't remember opting out of anything.
And, the rep said, all of Chee's rewards points were now gone. And there was nothing he could do about it.
The irony of a former bank spokesman getting the runaround from bank service reps isn't lost on me. But I sympathize with Chee's position.
And that's not just because this is a funky way for any business to treat a customer. I also sympathize because Chee couldn't have responded to any bank mailings in late 2009 even if he'd wanted to.
He was seriously injured in a boating accident on Labor Day of that year. Chee underwent brain surgery and spent six weeks in the hospital.
He said he's now "nearly fully recovered." But at the time, Chee said that "reading mail was the last thing on my mind."
The Cap One service rep, he said, didn't budge when he told her this. She insisted that his rewards points were forfeited.
Pam Girardo, a Cap One spokeswoman, said the bank sent letters in September 2009 to "a small group of customers who did not appear to be engaged in their rewards program" — that is, they weren't using their plastic as much as the bank wanted them to.
The customers were told that their rewards program was ending and that they had 60 days to opt in to a new one. "If they did not opt in, then they were converted to a non-rewards account," Girardo said.
Needless to say, this is a pretty shabby way to treat loyal customers. If Cap One had determined that a credit card holder wasn't enjoying the full benefits of a rewards plan, the correct response should have been a letter asking if the customer wanted to opt out of the plan or switch to another plan.
To send a letter requiring customers to renew membership in a program they already belonged to or be automatically transferred to a non-rewards card seems like nothing more than a sneaky way to thin the ranks of rewards recipients.
Girardo was at a loss to explain why it took no fewer than three service reps to explain to Chee what was going on with his account, or why, even at that point, the rep still got things wrong. For example, Chee should have been told that he'd be credited for any rewards points lost.
"Mr. Chee should have been able to re-enroll in rewards when he called in to let us know that he does in fact want to be in a rewards program," Girardo said. "I cannot explain what happened there and understand his dissatisfaction with the service he received. We regret any frustration this has caused."
Chee said he got a call the other day from a Cap One exec who apologized for how he was treated and offered to restore Chee's reward points.
Chee wasn't impressed.
"I told him that I know how this works because I used to do what he does," Chee said. "The only reason he was calling me was because a reporter had called. They were just following the playbook."
Chee told the Cap One exec that the bank could keep its rewards points. He suggested that Cap One instead use this episode as a learning experience for its service reps.
And what will Chee do now?
"I'll pay off the balance on my credit card and move on."
Another once-satisfied customer lost.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org