Bamboozled: Taking credit

Credit card issuers seem to amend their contracts with customers every day.BB branding

As long as lenders give cardholders enough notice and the changes fall within certain parameters, they can change the terms, even if we customers don’t like it.

Howard Titen isn’t uninformed about credit card industry trends, so he wasn’t surprised when he received a notification letter from his Hess Visa credit card. The letter said the rewards program for the card, issued by Chase Bank, would be changed.

Previously, customers received a cash rebate on purchases, both for Hess gasoline and at other merchants. Each month, rebates earned during the prior month were credited to a customer’s statement.

As of April 1, the letter said, customers would be credited their rewards when they’d accumulated $25, rather than monthly.

Titen, who usually earned a modest $5 or so in monthly rewards, wasn’t happy. Still, he was willing to live with the change — until he received his statement for the billing cycle that ended April 5. He was expecting the rewards he had earned up until April 1 to appear on that statement.

6909”Instead, they held all rewards earned before April 1,” Titen said, and when he called the company, he was told those rewards would be credited toward the new $25 reward benchmark.

”How can they enforce the new rule retroactively?” Titen said. ”These may not be large amounts but a big corporation like Hess shouldn’t be allowed to push around the little people.”

Chatting with Chase

Chase spokeswoman Gail Hurdis said customers are not losing rewards, but they would receive them in a future billing statement when they reached $25.

Understood. We’ll accept that rewards accumulated after April 1 would be applied to the $25, but rewards earned prior to that date should be paid out under the old program rules.

When asked about Titen’s pre-April 1 rewards, Hurdis said customers with a billing cycle that included April 1 would see that month’s rewards as part of the $25 accumulation.

That seems unreasonable, given that nothing of the sort was spelled out in the notification letter received by Titen, and presumably thousands of other Hess Chase customers. (Hess did not respond to requests for the number of customers who have this branded card.)

Not fair at all

On several occasions, Bamboozled asked Chase to reconsider the payout schedule of rewards earned before April 1. Hurdis refused to answer that question or even acknowledge that she would bring or did bring the request to higher-ups at the bank. She would only say, via e-mail:

”Chase notified customers in mid-February about changes to the Chase Hess Rewards program that would take effect at the beginning of April. This included a change to issuing rebates after $25 in rewards has been accumulated, starting with rebates issued on or after 4/1/09,” she wrote.

That’s worth repeating: “on or after 4/1/09”? What about rewards earned before that date? Hurdis refused to elaborate despite repeated questioning.

The statement speaks for itself, Chase said several times, both in its notification letter and in conversations with Bamboozled, that the change to rebates was effective April 1. Seems that should make the status of pre-April 1 rewards a no-brainer.

So we called Hess. Our pitch: Hess is throwing a lot of customers Chase’s way through this co-branded card. Of course Hess must honor its contracts with Chase, but it could try to use a little muscle to protect its customers.

Bamboozled asked the company if it would talk to Chase about making changes to the pre-April 1 rewards. We also asked if Hess has any plans to end its agreements with the bank in favor of its customers.

Repeated calls and e-mails to Hess went unanswered.

Complain, complain, complain — please?

Yes, I’m getting very riled up about a couple of dollars that Howard Titen will get eventually. But add his rewards to those all the other Hess Chase customers out there, and Chase is probably floating a healthy amount of money, earning interest on funds that should be in cardholders’ pockets.

If you’re a Hess Chase customer, start complaining. Complain to Hess. Complain to Chase. But most importantly, complain to those who can investigate the matter.

The Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency takes complaints about national banks, and Chase falls under its radar. You can file a complaint online (occ.gov) or call (800) 613-6743.

If you call, you’ll get a real person on the line, be assigned a case number and after the office investigates, you’ll receive a letter explaining what was found.

If you complain online, you may be contacted for additional information and documentation, and also be assigned a case number and eventually, get a resolution letter in the mail.

Also contact the Federal Trade Commission (ftc.gov). The FTC doesn’t resolve individual complaints, but it will use your complaints to track patterns of wrongdoing, which could lead to investigations and prosecutions.

Titen has filed his complaints.

”There must be thousands of people across the country with this problem,” said Titen. ”I’ll hold on to the card until I get my $25, then I will not use it again.”