Friday, December 15, 2017

More Macy's customers say they were charged for purchases they did not make, then hounded by debt collectors

TAMPA — Dr. Sonia Saceda, a 79-year-old widow and 20-year Army veteran, said Macy's charged her credit card $1,596 for purchases she did not make and then started calling her as often as three times a day, seven days a week seeking payment.

The calls continued, Saceda said, despite assurances from the retail giant's billing department that she would not have to pay. She said Macy's collections department also threatened to sic a lawyer on her.

"I am just at a loss," said Saceda, an Oldsmar resident. "I don't know what to do. It's really harassment. It is affecting me so much emotionally. I am a person who doesn't want to owe anything to anybody."

Macy's credit card collection efforts are again in the spotlight a week after a Tampa Bay Times article detailed how Macy's bruised another elderly customer's credit after a $111 charge was apparently posted to her account in error. Saceda and five other consumers contacted the Times last week outlining similar stories or other problems.

Macy's, and sometimes its banking partners, have been sued in federal court across the nation by numerous consumers who said the company's efforts to collect past-due credit card balances amounts to harassment.

In one pending suit in Tampa federal court, a woman accused Macy's and two of its banking partners of calling her 3,000 times from Jan. 1, 2014, to October 2015. A Texas woman accused Macy's collection agents of calling her 518 times in five months during 2015.

Macy's spokesman Jim Sluzewski said the retailer follows state and federal regulatory guidelines when attempting to collect a debt. He also said Macy's practices "are in line with the direction" of Macy's banking partner, a division of CitiBank, which owns the store's credit portfolio. (Sluzewski confirmed that collection efforts are done by the retailer's employees.)

Sluzewski acknowledged that "errors and confusion" sometimes occur.

In fact, both Saceda and the woman the Times wrote about last week said Macy's contacted them to apologize after the newspaper called the retailer to ask questions about their accounts. Saceda said Macy's told her it appears someone stole her account information.

Both women said Macy's promised to quickly resolve their problems and said it would contact credit bureaus to notify them that the women do not, in fact, have delinquent accounts.

"When we hear from a customer in a situation like this, we have processes in place to make sure we review, clear the charge and make the customer whole whenever appropriate," Sluzewski said in an email to the Times. "We take these processes very seriously.

"Although we always deeply regret disappointing or inconveniencing a customer, sometimes errors or confusion does occur and a customer may be billed for something they do not believe they owe. Our policies and practices ensure that if/when we detect an error, we make corrections as promptly as possible, including reversing any information in an account's payment history and/or customer credit report."

He said all the cases brought to the attention of Macy's by the Times have been resolved.

Sluzewski suggested that in some cases customers may be confused over a legitimate balance on their account. "In other cases, our customers may need clarification on why there is a remaining balance," he said.

Consumer advocates said they were uncertain if Macy's credit card practices are any worse than other companies. But the experiences suffered by Macy's customers are unfortunately all too common among all stores and banks issuing credit cards, they said. Often in large companies such as Macy's, customer account information can get muddled and confused, said Brandon attorney Bryant Dunivan, who sits on the board of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection.

He said a debt erroneously posted to an account can be resolved by the billing department; but the collections department may not get correct information. And he said companies are often far too aggressive collecting these debts.

"It gets really frustrating for people," he said. "They tell one department one thing and somehow those notes don't go across to another department."

Attorneys who work on cases involving credit card debt said consumers can do a few things to protect themselves. Contest an erroneous charge as quickly as possible, they say. Failing to address problems in at timely manner will cause consumers problems down the road. Always open your account statements, even if you should have a zero balance.

In communicating with credit card companies, put everything in writing by email or letter to document what you are being told. That evidence can then be used to communicate with credit bureaus to fix a blotch on your credit score.

"We've become a credit society," said Fort Myers attorney Carmen Dellutri, whose practice includes bankruptcy and consumer law. "And 99 percent of all transactions are legit and handled legitimately. You're talking billions of transactions a day. But when (credit card companies) screw up, it's a nightmare."

Patricia Soler of Tampa was surprised to discover when she recently tried to purchase a new car that her credit had taken a hit because of a supposed delinquency on her Macy's account. At least seven lenders refused to give her a loan for the purchase, though she said she did finally find one at a monthly rate she could afford.

Soler said she had two different Macy's accounts. She accidentally sent a $215 check to clear the balance on one of the cards to the wrong account. She quickly discovered the error after the account she should have sent the check to was reported as being delinquent, she said.

Macy's billing department quickly fixed the error and she did not have to pay late fees. But Macy's still reported the late payment to the credit bureaus.

"I almost didn't get the car because of that," Soler said.

Susan Mokry of Chicago, a school vice principal, said she and her husband discovered while trying to buy a second home in Fort Myers that Macy's had reported a $57 delinquency on her store credit card to the three credit bureaus. Mokry said the charge is legitimate — she bought a pair of shoes — but that she had already paid the charge in a timely manner by phone.

But she said Macy's indicated that a customer service representative had apparently taken down the wrong checking account number. Mokry said her credit score dropped from the high 700s to the low 600s.

Now she said she faces a higher interest rate to buy the home on a 30-year mortgage — about half a percentage point higher. Mokry expects to close next month.

"The point is, it's not my error. It's Macy's error," Mokry said. "Trying to clear this up is impossible."

Tampa lawyer Russell Koss said his wife paid off her Macy's credit card and closed the account. But Macy's continued to insist she had a small balance on the account and began collection efforts, he said.

Koss said he paid about $120 to just make the debt collectors go away. He said he did not think it was worth the expense of a legal fight.

"I didn't want her to lose any sleep over it," he said. "She wanted to sue. And as an attorney, I could have done that. But it wasn't worth the aggravation of suing."

Edith O'Donnell of Port Richey died on Jan. 11 at age 95. Her son, Joe O'Donnell, received a Feb. 17 letter from a debt collector, AscensionPoint, that offered the company's "deepest condolences during this time of loss for you and your family."

The company asked that the person responsible for paying his mother's debts call it. Edith's Macy's statement listed $1,640 in purchases at several different stores.

But O'Donnell figures he's got a good defense in proving his mother did not make the charges.

All were made on Jan. 17 and 18 — after her death.

Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432. Follow @Times_Levesque.

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