Let me preface this by saying it’s trivial and could doubtless have happened elsewhere, not just with GM. But now that we know there’s such a thing as Road Rage, which leads people to kill other people over nothing, should we not all admit to having suffered, from time to time, Credit Card Billing Rage, where we want to hurtle down through the phone line and rip the customer service rep’s heart out?

No? You mean I’m alone in these fantasies? Oops. How very embarrassing. Well, fortunately, it’s moot, because I’ve yet to figure out how to hurtle down the phone line. And because I’m aware it’s not the customer service rep who makes policy, so the Rage quickly passes.

It’s actually been a while since I felt any of this, because my credit card life is really simple: The bills come; I pay them in full via CheckFree.

But this morning I got my GM Gold card statement. I had signed up for one of these cards thinking I might someday buy a new GM vehicle, despite my preference for used ones, and that accumulating up to $1,000 a year in 5% “rebates” on everything I charged could be pretty good. No annual fee. Already awash in frequent flier miles. What’s to lose.

The previous month’s bill had been $55.93. (When I tell you to live beneath your means, I’m not kidding.) For whatever reason, it had taken me 29 days from the end of the billing cycle instead of 25 to get them the money.

Because I’m a good customer, I guess, the computer printed a notice asking me to be more careful in the future, but waiving the finance charge. (“In the future, you will incur purchase periodic finance charges if we do not receive your payment within 25 days after the close of the billing cycle.”) Fair enough. And thanks. It’s not that the interest on $55.93 at 18.9% would amount to a lot — 88 cents. But then you get all bollixed up, because when you pay the $55.93 in full, expecting to be free of interest charges in the future, you find the next month you were 88 cents short, and so are accruing interest on the $22,000 Home Entertainment Center you just purchased, and — well, you’ve been there, right? It’s a nightmare.

So it was nice of the computer to waive the 88 cents.

What did catch my eye, however, was the $20 late charge. “Please note,” the computer printed on my bill: “A late fee was assessed because your payment this month was received more than 25 days after the close of the billing cycle. In the future, please allow time for your payment to reach us within 25 days after the close of your billing cycle. Thank you for using the GM card.”

I tried to calculate the interest rate $20 represents on 4 days of a $55 debt, but my calculator exploded.

Now, I can see a $50 fee when you change a non-refundable airline ticket. There are a lot of reasons for it (one: a human has to spend some time trying to find you a seat on a different flight) and they clearly warn you about it in advance. Happy to pay it.

I can see a $25 ticket for overstaying one’s allotted time at a parking meter or a $150 fine for speeding (though to be effective on the rich without being draconian on the poor, I’d rather see speeding fines somehow geared not just to the degree of recklessness but also to the ability to pay).

But this? This is a little scuzzy. I turned over the bill and hunted through the light gray fine print that summarizes the terms of the card. No mention of $20 late fees. Gee, I thought. How fortunate I am that they didn’t levy a secret $50 or $500 late fee.

I called the 800-number, branched through the branching, listened to the music, gave out my card number, mom’s maiden name, all that — not because it was a good use of time, but because really: $20 on a $55.93 debt? — and I got Sean.

You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you I was reasonably well-behaved. I wasn’t nice. I’m not saying I was nice. But I wasn’t awful either. (And I know, because sometimes in these situations I have been awful, and I always hate myself for it afterward — so I try to keep from getting that way.)

“Help me understand why there would be a $20 charge for being a few days late on a $55 balance,” I said, after briefly explaining the situation. “That would seem to work out to, like, a bazillion percent interest. And help me get the charge reversed.”

Yes, I should have said, “please” and I should have been meek. But surely these folks have encountered worse than what I had just dished out.

“Are you asking me or telling me?” was Sean’s response.

“Huh?” I said.

I had just assumed he would run through the “soothe the customer and gain goodwill for GM by canceling the late fee” script and I’d be on my way.

“Are you asking me or telling me?” he repeated.

“‘Help me’ is what I said. Is that asking or telling? I guess it’s however you received it.”

Again, I was neither nice (nice would have been, “Gee, did that come off wrong? I’m sorry. I just need your help.”) nor awful. I was just nonplused. Not only was I being charged $20 for being “bad,” I wasn’t asking for help nicely enough — bad again. We can’t get on to the substance of my customer service inquiry until I improve my attitude. I’ve obviously got a lot to learn about how to be a good GM customer.

“Look,” I said. “I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. Is there someone else I could talk with about this and just start fresh?”

Sean seemed to find that acceptable and put me back on with the music. After a couple of minutes — a long time to be stewing over being dressed down by the customer service rep, especially when you don’t know it will be only a two-minute wait, you’re just in limbo, and what a waste of time this is for $20 (not to sound grand about it, but you do know I have a vast fortune) — Mr. Morrow came on the line.

Mr. Morrow, handled it much better, as most customer service supervisors do. He let me vent a little, then explained that they used to waive the late fee when people called, but all the card companies were tightening up on this (oh, yeah? in some sort of collusion outlawed by anti-trust?) and, while he sympathized, if I checked the terms of my agreement I’d see this $20 was part of the deal.

“Well, you know,” I said, “I looked at the fine print on the back of my statement and I didn’t see anything about a $20 late fee.”

Mr. Morrow was surprised by this. I read him each of the section headings, offering to read the full text. He said, well, it may not be in the lengthy fine print summary but it is in the original fine print agreement. He offered to send a copy.

I was all set to cancel my card, but realized I would probably lose the considerable credit I had built up toward a new GM car, should I ever buy one. (Does not apply to Saturn, reads some other fine print.) (Can no longer rack up as much in credits as before, reads a later amendment.) So, after Mr. Morrow assured me there was no annual fee and that I need not ever use it again to keep it in force, I pledged to pay the $20 promptly but never to use the card again. I realized he didn’t set the policy, I explained, but suggested that he might want to volunteer in the next department meeting that this is pretty dumb. It’s a low-road way to make $20, and, in my case at least, will cost GM a lot more than $20 in goodwill.

Yet one more reason to buy a used car.

Thank you for letting me vent. Does turning the $20 into the subject of this comment make it a deductible business expense?


PS – Don’t let this trivial episode cause you to sell your GM stock. A lot of people smarter about these things than me seem to feel GM stock is in the early stages of a gradual upswing. Having bought a little myself, I hope they’re right.


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