AmEx Incompetence Unleashes Zombie Debt Collectors On Innocent Reader

Richard writes:

I am an MD-PhD, working at a medical center in New York. In 2006 I came here form Wisconsin, and at that point I called American Express (had a credit card with them for about 7-8 years before), explained my move, and the new academic position I was taking on, and asked them if they can help me in the transition period while moving. The rep told me that since my account is in excellent standing, I can go for 2 to 3 months without incurring late fees or penalties, IF I can prove that I am moving to another state and taking on a new job, to which I said, of course, there will be plenty of documents such as rental agreement, job offer, etc., to prove that. I was at the same time told, that “American Express helps its card holders in times of need and transition”.

About 2-3 months later I wasn’t able to make a payment on-line, then found out that my on-line access was inactivated and the account closed and forwarded to collection agencies.

Since then, I have been dealing with collection agencies, some of them – the most nasty ones. Even though I specified that I would like to pay what I owe, I asked for validation, because the amount they indicate is higher than the credit limit and I never used that much. I simply want to see what I am paying. I sent a validation request to the first collection agency, they stopped contact with me and sent the account back to American Express; then a second collection agency contacted me, I asked for validation, and they also stopped contacting me after that. It seems that none of these agencies are able to send me a simple piece of paper, to explain in detail what they are collecting.

On the other hand, they are so aggressive…I recorded the latest collection agency calls. They are asking me to pay “today” or “within 6 hours”, when I ask for their mailing address they are telling me “if you want the mailing address then wait until we forward this to an attorney”, etc. How is someone supposed to make a payment to someone with unrevealed physical contact information? This is not supposed to be like a payment from a Mafia movie!

Simply this account should not have gone to collection in the first place. By the way, even though I notified American Express about my new mailing address when I came to NY, I found out that HALF A YEAR after I moved they still sent me letters to Wisconsin. Of course, I don’t know what letters I might have missed from them, but they didn’t even have the courtesy to send me a letter before placing the account on collection.

And, above all, I am trying to focus on my work. I am a well respected medical scientist in the community, I published about 50-60 articles over the past few years. With my cell phone ringing in the middle of the day, (even though I informed these agencies repeatedly that my phone is only for professional calls during business hours because I work in a medical center), I find it hard to focus.

Kindly please let me know if you have the e-mail addresses for the American Express executive people.

Many thanks in advance, and Congrats for your wonderful web site, it is an amazing place for learning lessons on a daily basis!

Warm regards,
Richard

Hi Richard,

Bad news/Good news. One, we don’t have any AmEx addresses. Two, even if they did, they wouldn’t help you. The debt is now the property of the collection agencies and AmEx has nothing to do with it.

The good news is that I’ve heard that if a debt collector fails to provide a validation of the debt, it’s a violation of the FDCPA to sell it another collection agency. You might be able to hold each of those successive agencies liable for statutory damages of $1,000, plus the costs of your lawyer.

Hi, Ben,

Many thanks for your reply. This is good news, in fact I was wondering whether it is legal to refuse validation then just send the debt to the next collection agency. Theoretically, this would mean (since there are hundreds/thousands of them), that I would need a full time job just to wait for these letters from the next collection agency, then promptly send validation requests, and not to have extended vacations just in case I miss one of them…

Actually, I am amazed at how fraudulent they can be. I have them recorded, threatening me with “legal review” and “sending it out to an attorney” during the validation period.

Actually, the latest collection agency that called me, left messages on my cell phone, they are “The Law Offices of [redacted]”, and to the best of my knowledge, (at least days ago when I checked them out), they are not even licensed as a collection agency in this state! I am thinking to take them to small claims court. In addition they left a detailed message, telling me that they are calling me on behalf of their client, and the case is under legal review, and I have to immediately/urgently call back, to explore my options. My understanding is that such a detailed message is a violation itself. Now I am wiser than I was just months ago, and I never call anyone back…they should contact me in writing, since none of them can be trustworthy.

Thanks so much for your help, I will e-mail you in the future with the outcome. This “[redacted]” agency is a particularly creepy one. And I saw on many discussion boards that they are not licensed (as I found out myself).

Have a great week,
Best regards,
Richard

RELATED: Verizon Unleashes Zombie Debt Collector Scourge On Innocent Consumer
(Photo: Bahman.)

Comments

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  1. mantari says:

    Any other fun charges one can threaten to add to this? Wire fraud, for example?

  2. siskamariesophie says:

    That sucks. I guess it goes to show that American Express, or any credit card company can’t be trusted when they make promises or exceptions for a good customer. I don’t understand how they even closed down his account after 2 or 3 months of non-payment.

    Since he wasn’t in a far away country without internet access though, perhaps he should have just made the minimum payments instead of taking Amex’ word for it that all would work out in the end.

  3. savvy999 says:

    We get it. MD-PhD with a c.v. a mile long. Richard is smart.

    But not smart enough to get any of AmEx’s verbalizations in writing? As soon as he said, “The rep told me…”, I knew this wasn’t going to be good.

    Sounds to me like he defaulted on his AmEx. That makes AmEx incompetent?

  4. HeyThereKiller says:

    Ok um… I went like 8 months without making a payment on my AmEx… I mean, it was a Blue for Students card, and my balance was only like 1,700… but still, I didn’t start getting calls for a long while, and even then it was a legit agency that, although persistent, was still willing to give me the information I requested.

  5. JPropaganda says:

    @savvy999: It should never have gone to collection. AmEx has a great standing in supporting its customers, and this is simply a crack in the great wall that is AmEx customer support. “wa wa it’s this guy’s fault” doesn’t change the fact that this is a CONSUMER SUPPORT BLOG. IT WILL ALWAYS TAKE THE SIDE OF THE CONSUMER.

    If you don’t like it, stop coming here.

  6. andymadrid1 says:

    Uhm, I’ve moved across the country several times, and in this situation I would definitely have followed up with Amex every month when the bill was due, especially if I wasn’t receiving my monthly bills at all. Am I the only one who thinks he was presuming too much? Why wasn’t his mailed forwarded or held at the post office? I don’t even like Amex and canceled my card months ago, but gosh, I paid them first.

  7. char says:

    @savvy999: Should he have checked? yup. Does that make it any less AMex’s fault? nope.

    Best of luck beating back collections and having your credit rating restored.

  8. Major-General says:

    @siskamariesophie: There isn’t really such a thing as a “minumum payment” on most AmEx cards; they are charge cards not credit cards. Excepting the Blue and Optima.

    @andymadrid1: Makes me wonder if I’m the only one who can’t get the postal service to forward mail. Though in my case it’s my deceased grandmothers.

  9. TechnoDestructo says:

    Get names. Then suggest that they’d better never get sick.

  10. mantari says:

    @savvy999: “Richard is smart. But not smart enough to get any of AmEx’s verbalizations in writing?”

    I’d put part of that back on AmEx, or any other creditor. If you’re making a change in the terms of the account, even in the customer’s favor, the company should be sending documentation to the customer.

    But most of the complaint that I read, above, doesn’t seem to deal with Amex, but with the collection agencies that Amex has directly or indirectly used.

    Beating up on the person about his dealing with Amex is beside the point here, which is collections.

    How about keeping the arguments to the story, and not personal attacks?

  11. kepler11 says:

    This is not exactly a compelling case of company screwing the customer.

    I don’t really understand what this guy expected, and it’s not made any better by the vague story about his first conversation with Amex. What exactly does he mean when he says he “asked them if they can help me”? Did he make a concrete request to not pay his bill for 2 months? Did they record it in their system and waive payment for 2 months, and give him a confirmation of that? He seems to have turned his *hope* for an interest-free, payment-free period into a belief/misunderstanding/expectation that that’s what the representative understood and initiated a process for without doing any followup verification or having any proof.

    How then, exactly, are the Amex computers supposed to tell the difference between someone who hasn’t paid his bill in 2-3 months because he’s gone delinquent, versus someone who’s moving and is short of cash and is asking for a favor (which is not even clear if he officially requested)? Did he provide all that documentation that he said would be required? Did he even ask how this would eventually have to be done? If not, what did he think would happen? His conversation with the Amex representative sounds like it was only on the level of advice and information, not granted policy, but then his wishful thinking compounded it into his belief. Given that he says that lots of documentation would be needed, he should have been more careful about just assuming that it would be ok to change the normal expectations of payment without specifics details and agreements.

    That said, it is unfortunate that this small mistake has led to such subsequent trouble with debt-collection.

  12. johnperkins21 says:

    @savvy999: He’s not really blaming AmEx or calling them incompetent. He’s explaining the situation. At this point it’s moved on to collection agencies, and that’s who his gripe really seems to be with. He’s upset about the fact that AmEx didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, but he doesn’t really seem to dwell on it. He only really says once that “simply this account should not have gone to collection in the first place.”

    He definitely could have done more to make sure his account didn’t go into collection, but he’s more upset with the tactics of the collection agencies. He just wants to pay what he legitimately owes and move on.

  13. JPropaganda says:

    Is anyone else noticing that once they post a comment they can’t read any of the comments below it?

  14. spryte says:

    @siskamariesophie: As Major-General alluded to, many AmEx cards require that you pay off the balance in full every month. I’m assuming that’s the type of card the OP had, otherwise I’m sure he would have been able to make minimum payments on a regular credit card.

  15. QuantumRiff says:

    Talk to a bankruptcy lawyer. Not to file for bankruptcy, but because they are experts on what is and is not allowed from Debt Collectors in your state.

  16. @andymadrid1: He probably wasn’t expecting to get bills for a few months since he thought he’d worked things out with them so he wouldn’t have to pay for a while.

    I don’t understand why he didn’t get the mail either: Didn’t he fill out a change of address form? (Actually, I don’t understand why moving meant being unable to pay the bill for multiple months, but whatever.)

    However, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place if the CSR hadn’t said it would be OK to go a few months without paying. Why say something like that if it isn’t true?

  17. @JPropaganda: No, but I’ve noticed that posting a comment undoes the nesting.

  18. mir777 says:

    I’ve been an AMEX customer for many, many, many years and they have always been quite helpful. However, I found the customer service specifically for AMEX Blue (the credit card) to be lacking. I don’t know what this smarty (I’ve got degrees too!) means by “overlimit” but if he has a Blue card that would make sense.

    Still, Amex has always been great service-wise, but definitely aggressive about pursuing those who are late, especially with the charge (no limit, pay in full each month) card. I appreciate that, in that it prevents me from having a balance buildup.

    Even when I’ve been late I’ve always gotten a call and never in collections. Weird.

  19. Techguy1138 says:

    @savvy999:
    Everyone makes mistakes. Even as you call them “smart” people.

    I recently had a move and with everything I had to do it was a great relief that no company screwed me over like that. If customer phone support was completely useless then no one would use it.

    HANDY MOVING TIP!
    Get a PO box in the place you are moving to and have your mail forwarded to it. This way if someone screws up something like this you can catch it.

    If you don’t know where you are moving, like I didn’t. Get a mail service P.O. box and have them bundle and ship you mail to the hotel/ apartment you are staying at.

    It all costs $$ but it can really help.

  20. hwyengr says:

    Back in my younger, foolish college days (2002), I let my finances get in such tough shape that I was 90 days behind on my AMEX Green, and 60 on my Blue. I got plenty of phone calls from customer service threatening to cancel my account, but it never went to collection. And, it never showed up on my credit report. The Green I understand, since it’s month-to-month only. But I would have expected a ding for the Blue.

    Not like MBNA, may that name rot in hell.

  21. jesuismoi says:

    Never, ever deal with a bill collector over the phone. There are plenty of web sites dealing with bill collectors with the how-to of navigating the Fair Debt Collection Act.

    I fended off (got the whole thing cancelled) an illegal bill from an apartment complex — but it took two years and letters to my State’s Attorney General. The letters only worked because I was able to document the illegal actions by the complex.

    Talking to collectors on the phone only resulted in them yelling at me. (Also, low tech solution to the cell phone calls: turn your ringer on vibrate and use the caller id.) If the phone is your work phone and you aren’t allowed to recieve collection calls, tell them and they have to stop calling.

    Writing them didn’t do much good, either, but I kept copies of my certified letters.

    It was finally the illegal activities of the collectors that got my whole situation to go away, but you have to document, document, document. Take notes on calls you get, and sign and date your notes. Do everything over mail. Etc.

  22. savvy999 says:

    @johnperkins21: You are correct, Richard himself does not call AmEx incompetent, but the title of the post does, which is incredibly inaccurate. But hey, it worked to get me to click on it. Sensationalism pays the bandwidth bill, eh Ben?

    Kepler11’s comment pretty much spells out my thoughts on the initial issue, that at least according to the information given in the story, Richard was not nearly diligent enough in avoiding this mess to begin with.

    One’s credit accounts and rating aren’t like a bum on the street, that one may mumble something at and run away from, hoping it all works out later when it’s more comfy to deal with it. That’s called neglect. If anything, as a “CONSUMER SUPPORT BLOG”, Consumerist is an excellent way to learn to not do such things.

    I’ll back a wronged consumer every time on this site, and Richard’s subsequent harassment by the scumbag collection agencies are obviously worth our collective empathy and advice. How he got himself into this mess, however, is not.

    @JPropaganda: “If you don’t like it, stop coming here.”

    Awesome, you just made my week, thanks. I truly {heart} you.
    ((((((((((((hugs)))))))))))))))

  23. gingerCE says:

    Amex is a credit card. I like my credit cards–but I don’t trust any of them. Something they tell you over the phone is not worth the paper it isn’t printed on. Unfortunately.

    As for the creditors, they all sound slimy. Amex selling your debt that quickly also sounds wrong. I think they would’ve held onto your debt for at least 6 months in house collections before selling it.

  24. ancientsociety says:

    I don’t buy the line that AMEX agreed to “help him out” of not paying his bill every month because he was “moving”. I wouldn’t expect ANY CC co. to waive minimum payments for multiple months unless you had some major financial hardship and only then if both the customer and company had it documented in writing beforehand.

    I’m assuming Mr. Hotshot MD isn’t dirt poor so why wasn’t he saving up for a few months or (better yet) paying off his CCs before moving? Also, why didn’t he ask for it in writing and why didn’t he followup with AMEX?

    Sorry but this whole thing stinks of consumer negligence and lack of personal responsibility.

  25. gingerCE says:

    I’d try calling Amex again and deal with them. They sold the debt but I think they can get it back.

    Example, I was dealing with an inaccurate medical bill (one where they double billed me for tests). Took over nine months to get settled. It went to collections to a 3rd party. I called the lab and asked them to take it out of collections as I am disputing this. They took it out of collections.

    Someone I know got so far as being sued by a collection agency for a Discover card. A week before the court date they called Discover and hashed out a settlement agreement.

    Hopefully Amex can be convinced they made an error and work to cancel their agreement with the creditors. However, if you have a balance, Amex will probably expect you to pay the balance in full.

  26. theninjasquad says:

    Why didn’t AmEx call him first asking what was going on instead of sending him straight to a debt collector? They must have had his phone number if the debt collectors have it.

  27. @gingerCE: I once had a medical bill go into collections. When I was able to get the money to pay I paid the doctor. Haven’t heard from the collections agency since and it shows up as paid on my credit report.

  28. trollkiller says:

    Everybody seems to be missing the fact the guy can’t get validation of the debt.

    I am dealing with the same thing, I started getting collection letters for a supposed debt. I never got a bill from the hospital/doctor/lab. The bill collectors can’t tell me what the debt was for. One call it is a doctor bill, the next call it is a hospital bill. I have looked up the entity that I supposedly owe via Google and the phone book. I can’t find them. The amount owed had bounced between $250 and $450. I have asked every collector that has called to send me information on the debt. Who, what, where, and when. To date none have been willing to provide me with the info. No info, no payment.

    So if anyone can tell him, and me, what the best way to deal with these pests it would be helpful.

  29. goller321 says:

    I feel for Richard. I opened an AMEX card several months back because of their reputation. I transferred a balance to them and made payments online. For some reason, a payment I made online didn’t go through and the jumped my APR from 4% to 23%! Since I wasn’t using the card, I only went online and made payments. A couple months later I found the interest rate jump and called. I got no resolution and told them to cancel. I called and tried to get it straightened out a second time and they again did nothing- so I told them to cancel the account. I was getting ready to pay off the account when I noticed that my rate this month was back down to the original 4%… except for the late fee which they said they were going to drop- which is at 12%. And now I don’t know if the account is closed or not…so I guess I will have to call and get things straightened out again. I don’t want someone coming back later and telling me I own hundreds of dollars in interest because they screwed up…

  30. goller321 says:

    @trollkiller: This link to the FTC- [www.ftc.gov]

    has some good info. But to make things legal, I believe you need to send (certified) letters requesting validation. Pretty much everything needs to be in hard copy writing. But recording all calls is also a good idea for any future action you may wish to take.

    Keep a record of everything for the credit reporting agencies too, cause with these debts, your credit is gonna take a massive ding.

  31. lalala1956 says:

    Savvy once again shows why he/she is the top poster. Honestly stop disagreeing his/her posts.

  32. lalala1956 says:

    I only come to Consumerist to read Savvy’s comments btw

  33. trollkiller says:

    @goller321: Thank you for the very useful link.

    My credit is already trashed due to past medical bills and an insurance dispute. In a way that is good because when they threaten to harm my credit I just laugh.

  34. cmp179 says:

    As an attorney who does a lot of consumer protection work, I would say you almost certainly have at least one violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and probably more. Don’t try to take them to small claims court, though. Find a consumer protection attorney and let that person handle it. A bankruptcy attorney would be a good place to start. If you can’t find a bankruptcy attorney who will take it, you could probably at least get a referral to an attorney who will.

  35. savvy999 says:

    @lalala1956: {heart} you too, aww shucks

    Anyways, Trollkiller nails the phrase of the day– debt validation, does it actually exist?

    I have no idea. Writing things down and demanding the same of your creditors/goons is the best policy I guess.

  36. Trick says:

    So you are busy, I can see that. Then again, most people are busy with their own lives so I don’t see that as a true, valid excuse.

    If you had a rental agreement, you knew your address. Why didn’t you change your address with AmEx and with the Post Office? The PO would have forwarded any mail to your new address.

    My friend had a horrible experience with AmEx back in the mid 90’s. But it was brought on by himself and not paying the bills. I helped him a little after doing some research and got the nasty creditors off his back long enough to pay off AmEx. Still, it was his doing, not AmEx.

    I myself use AmEx as much as I can… they truly have been a great company for me…

  37. iamme99 says:

    Oh, puh-leeze. That idiot ought to have his degrees revoked for stupidity.

  38. SRSco says:

    @Major-General:

    You actually got it the other way around. The ONLY cards where the payment is due in full is the Green, Gold, Platinum and Centurion (Black).

    Everything else is a revolving debt credit card with minimum payment options (Blue, Blue Cash, Clear, Starwood, Costco, Hilton, Delta, JetBlue, Optima, IN:NYC,LA,Chicago, etc.)

    More than likely he only had to pay a minimum payment. I think this guy is just an idiot for trusting a rep’s word at a unreasonable request (“Can I just not like pay you guys for a few months?”…who WOULD say yes?)

    This guy is an idiot.

  39. adehus says:

    @SRSco: ” I think this guy is just an idiot for trusting a rep’s word at a unreasonable request (“Can I just not like pay you guys for a few months?”…who WOULD say yes?)”

    Ironically, this sentence ranks as the most idiotic string of thoughts I’ve ever read on Consumerist. Let’s unpack it, shall we?

    Is an unreasonable request really unreasonable if it’s granted? I’d say no. Is someone idiotic for, um, actually believing what a rep tells him? Again, probably not.

    So what’s the problem? If you think he’s lying, then just say so. Particularly since your apparently incapable of arguing it any other way!

  40. SteveBMD says:

    “I am an MD-PhD …” And that’s relevant how? Arrogant.

  41. ExtraCelestial says:

    clarification–

    most american express cards are charge cards that need to be repaid at the end of the month, but occasionally they will extend the payment date and charge an interest rate for customers in good standing. this is completely not out of the ordinary and im thinking likely what occurred in this situation

  42. goller321 says:

    @SteveBMD: Jealous?

  43. stevebmd says:

    @goller321: No, I’m happy with my MD, thank you very much. I just don’t see the need to go and proclaim it to everyone when it’s unrelated to the issue at hand.

  44. stevebmd says:

    “I am a well respected medical scientist in the community, I published about 50-60 articles over the past few years.” Gosh, how did I miss that statement? Now I feel great empathy and tremendous compassion for this esteemed professional. Why should such a well-respected and deserving scientist, devoting his life to research and the care of the ill, have to deal with the ridiculous and trivial demands of a lowly credit card company? Richard, I am truly sorry. Society owes you far more than this.

  45. trollkiller says:

    @stevebmd: In poor Richard’s defense I think he was just trying to show he was not a dumb ass.

    Part of me is thinking that if he is so successful then he can hire a lawyer to fight back.

  46. rcsfca says:

    “INTERNET” – in this day and age i really do not know how people miss payments on their credit cards. I mean I understand that maybe a person can’t afford to keep up with the bills. However, not getting your mail is not an excuse. It seems like he only had one card to worry about, that makes it easier to track your debts. Plus you can set up your online amex account to send you reminder emails to tell you that your statement is ready. Not getting your mail is no excuse, unless you’re like my grandfather who does not know own a computer thus is not able to check his accounts online.

  47. gibbersome says:

    Having an MD-PhD doesn’t make you immune from getting entangled in the Credit Cards’ dirty work. In hind sight, I imagine Richard wishes he had made all payments before moving.

  48. hanoverfiste says:

    You say they are calling you on your cell? You may be able to pull the phone number off the caller id or your cell phone records.

    Google the phone number also there are sites like whocalled.us that will tell you what the collection agency is. Then google the collection agency. If you can pinpoint state (city even better) you can get an address from the Better Business Bureau, who will most likely have many complaints, some unresolved.

    You can send them certified letters to validate the request. If they don’t respond you can sue. There are several websites out there that will give you the process. Alternatively, you can send them a certified letter telling them to not contact you by any means but lawsuit.

    If you have the money and want to resolve the issue, I highly recommend just continuing to call AE to see if you can find someone that will let you pay the bill directly and not the collector. Call them everyday. Also they should be able to tell you want company has it in collections.

    I had a collector calling my mom’s house for a card that went into default in 2001. I had gotten that card long after I moved away from home. We have had an unlisted phone number since 2003. First I googled the number and found out they were are bunch of scumbags representing themselves as a law firm although they were not.

    Then I called the guy. And he started to tell me something about an account and settlement but I uninterrupted him. I told him a very colorful manner that I would castrate him if he ever called my mom again.

    He gave a nervous laugh and went back into his pitch. About settling or turning it over to local law firm to serve notice. I ask if he was aware that Texas has 4 year statute of limitations and no suit would ever be brought forward.

    He replied that his notice showed payment in 2003. I said I’m certain you can never validate this account, that 2003 date is most like when a different collection agency bought the account.

    He starts to threaten a little more and make offer to collect some cash from me. I told him look I’m not interested in that. I have your name, your company’s, your address. I am planning to call (the name of the attorney general for the state he lived in) and the FTC about you.

    He replied, “What are they going to tell you, to pay your bills?”

    I said no, using his name, we are going to talk about your and your illegal collection practices, calling my mother and telling her you are a lawyer that is trying to sue me.

    He said, “Look I can tell this isn’t going to work. We won’t ever call you again and don’t ever call us.” And he hung up.

    I called him right back. Using his name I said you hung up on me, are you scared of me?

    He said no. I said I’m not used to collectors saying they will never call and for me not to call. Are you sure. He reassured me that they would call again.

    I then told him. Ok. I just want you to know that I recorded both of the phone calls. Also, since you don’t know where I am there is no way you could serve me papers. And there are only n 90 days left in 2007, so even if your 2003 information is correct you only have 90 days left.

    Good Luck