Credit Card Expert Disputes Erroneous Charge, Frustration Ensues

Georgetown law professor and Credit Slips blogger Adam Levitin is having trouble disputing an erroneous $176.96 charge on his Citibank Amex card from PACER, the federal court’s online docket system, which he accesses for free. The professor is a consumer credit expert and should have no problem understanding and fixing the error, right? Fat chance.

Let’s first check out the professor’s relevant credentials:

Professor Levitin’s research focuses on financial institutions and their role in the consumer and business credit economy, including credit card regulatory and competition issues, mortgage lending, identity theft, DIP financing, and bankruptcy claims trading.

So he’s a damn-smart expert on credit thingies. Let’s see how he handled Citibank.

I called Citi and disputed the charge. The charge is a billing error under 15 CFR part 226.113(a)(1). Unfortunately my dispute did not compute in the Citi system. Because I was contesting an unliquidated amount of the charges, however, my case didn’t fit into one of their eight dispute check boxes. (Note that Reg Z does not require that I know the amount of the error. See 15 C.F.R. Part 226.113(b)(3).) Finally, after speaking to a supervisor, I just decided to dispute the entire amount because that was the only way I could go forward with a dispute given the unbending parameters of Citi’s computer system. I also contacted PACER to make sure that they had processed all my fee exemptions.

Fast forward to earlier this week. I still hadn’t heard anything from Citi or PACER about the dispute’s resolution. But, to my great surprise this month’s Citi statement arrived. It says that I owe the full PACER balance and there’s a finance charge tacked on for the disputed amount.

When I called Citi to inquire, I was told that I hadn’t disputed the charge the previous month. This was in spite of fact that there were numerous notes about the nature of the dispute in my file. In other words, Citi had taken down all sorts of details about my dispute, but never actually processed that I was disputing the charge. Citi entered the dispute a month late, and only after I called to check up on it.

Well, Citi has now (supposedly) removed the finance charge and recorded the charge as contested. But Citi tells me that I need to submit documentation about the dispute or the charge will be reinstated. That means I have to send some 50 pages of court orders to Citi at my own time and expense for a merchant’s mistake. The duty to investigate a billing error is Citi’s. Nothing in Reg Z requires that the cardholder submit written documentation to the card issuer at my own expense. So why am I footing the bill? (Maybe there’s language to that extent buried in my cardholder agreement…)

The professor sees five problems with the situation:

1. His credit report may take a ding from the late payment, something he has no control over and Citibank’s CSRs are too incompetent to fix.
2. The surprise rate on the finance charge was 101.211%
3. After futzing with a compound interest calculator for half an hour, the professor couldn’t figure out how Citibank was calculating the finance charge.
4. The late payment could trigger universal default provisions with his other creditors, causing a world of financial pain from Citi’s mistake.
5. He can’t close the account without losing his rewards or further dinging his credit score.

We take away one very simple lesson that every policymaker should appreciate: a renowned expert on credit cards is being harmed by his creditor and is practically powerless to fight back. Does this seem fair or reasonable to anyone?

My Very Own Risk-Based Repricing Experience [Credit Slips]