Nov. 17, 2009 at 9:00 AM ET
What if there were a way to have your credit card debt erased if you lost your job or became disabled? That's the pitch behind debt cancellation, a service offered by many credit card issuers and retailers.
Debt cancellation doesn't come cheap: it costs between $1 and $2 per $100 balance. A consumer with a $3,000 balance, for example, could pay nearly $60 a month for debt cancellation service.
That might not sound like such a great deal, but thousands of consumers sign up anyway. Why? One telemarketer who sells the service told msnbc.com recently that there's only one reason: Sellers intentionally confuse cardholders about the programs and their costs.
"I hate flat-out lying to someone, but that's exactly what we do, 150 calls a day," said the telemarketer, who requested anonymity out of fear of losing his job. "I have seen so many people ripped off that I had to attempt to let people know."He works in tiny Pennington Gap, Va., a small Appalachian town near the Kentucky border that's been hit hard by the economic downturn. But he works for some of the biggest firms in America. For the past year, the telemarketer has sold debt cancellation for Macy's retail credit cards issued by Citigroup, working for a third-party firm named Aon Integramark, which contracts work to a local firm, the Kavanaugh CallCenter Group. Aon is one of the world's largest insurance firms, with 37,000 employees and 500 offices in more than 120 countries. It insures nearly everything -- from Hollywood movies to container ships – and markets debt cancellation programs to credit card issuers through its Aon Integramark division.
"Are you realizing the power of debt cancellation?" the firm asks of banks and retail stores on its Web site. "These programs provide lending customers with new power and control over their finances -- especially in tough times that can affect anyone."
Quietly, a huge industry
Debt cancellation is a large and profitable business for credit card firms and retailers who issued private-label credit cards. In 2003, the Center for Economic Justice estimated that consumers paid $2.5 billion in fees for such programs, but card firms paid only $125 million in benefits. In other words, the issuers kept nearly 95 percent of the premiums paid.
In standard insurance products, firms pay out about 80 percent of the premiums they collect. The enormous margins in debt cancellation are possible because the programs are not considered insurance and are not regulated as insurance products, thanks to a 1986 Circuit Court ruling.
Few financial products are more profitable than unregulated insurance products, and the bonanza that is debt cancellation (sometimes called debt suspension) have led to aggressive sales techniques for the products. Those have been redoubled during uncertain economic times.
Debt cancellation – and its predecessor, credit insurance -- has a soiled reputation. The Internet is littered with complaints from consumers who say they were signed up for the service and billed hundreds of dollars without their consent.
In 2006, Red Tape readers were first introduced to the problem by Steve Monteith, a reader who purchased a new flat-screen television at Best Buy using a familiar "Same as Cash" program. He ended up getting a surprise bill for $472, thanks to his unwitting enrollment in a debt cancellation program.
Now, thanks to the telemarketer who came forward to describe what he calls unfair sale tactics, msnbc.com can offer insight into why consumers keep falling for the same tricks.
Sounds like it's free
The telemarketer's job may be unsavory, but the call center pays $8.75 per hour – an offer that's hard to refuse in an area where minimum wage is standard for many employers. When openings occur, applicants go to great lengths to land one of the jobs, he said.
"Before the minimum wage went up, this was by far the best-paying job in the area," he said.
The power of the debt cancellation pitch lies in the presentation, said the telemarketer. The first lie, he said, is the price. Scripts handed to phone operators there have been carefully worded to make the program sound like it's free. Here's what the script provided to msnbc.com instructs telemarketers to tell customers:
"The cost is only $1.89 per $100 of the outstanding account balance shown on your statement at the end of a billing period and best of all, there is no charge when you don’t have a balance shown at the end of a monthly billing period." That assertion is repeated later: “And remember, if you have no outstanding balance at the end of the month, there is no charge. “
That's deceptive, the telemarketer said, because consumers who pay their balance on time every month are left with the impression that the debt-cancellation service will be free. It's not. Re-read the cost description. The cost is computed when the billing cycle ends and a bill is generated, not after consumers pay their bills. That means consumers who initiate any charges during a month will have to pay for the service. There is no "grace period" for debt cancellation, and even if there are no finance charges, there are debt cancellation charges.
"This information is not told to the customer," the telemarketer said. "They are only told what I quoted above. If the customer asks, 'Well what if I pay off my balance every month?' we are told to just read the 'cost of program' script again, and hope they don't ask any more questions."
His assertion of confusion seems to be backed up by another portion of the telemarketing script which anticipates consumer frustration on this point. If a consumer asks, "I Thought There Was NO Cost, Since I Do/Did Not Carry a Balance?" the operator is told to answer, "You are correct; your Macy's account will be billed for the Credit Protection program fee only when you have a balance on your account at the end of a monthly billing period.
Those who do probe deeper and manage to get an accurate sense of the program's true costs rarely sign up for the service, he said.
"Only 1 out of 50 who find out all the details actually sign up," he said. "Deception is essential to our sales."
Macy's: 'Neither misleading nor ambiguous'
Beth Charlton, a spokeswoman for Macy's, confirmed the scripts shared with msnbc.com were authentic. But she defended the sales pitch and disputed the employee's assertion that it was deceptive, saying the scripts are "neither misleading nor ambiguous."
"You are confusing payment with charges," she said. "It seems that your informant confuses the concepts of payment in full, no balance carried forward with the concept that even if the consumer pays in full each month, if she makes new charges, a new outstanding balance is created for which a fee will be assessed."
She also said debt cancellation fees are clearly listed on credit card statements, so consumers should not be confused about the cost of the product.
Aon Integramark CEO Steve Williams said he could not speak directly about Macy's customers because of confidentiality agreements, but he agreed to discuss Aon's debt cancellation business in general. He said his firm went to great lengths to make sure consumers were treated fairly.
"The level of disclosure on these programs is incredible," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of oversight in these programs."
Among other safeguards, calls are regularly monitored both by Macy's and by an independent third party to make sure consumers are fairly treated, he said.
When asked about possibly ambiguity about the terms, and about possible confusion over when there is no charge for the product, he said: "Frankly, this concept is not hard to understand."
Williams also said there are liberal refund policies for the debt cancellation service, some as long as 90 days. So even if consumers are initially confused, they can easily reclaim their money, he said.
"Our business rules are we don't want to irritate our customers," he said. "We face penalties if we do something wrong. We have millions of customers and (if there's a complaint) there is a major fire drill to find out what happened, and we submit a detailed report to our client. The last thing we want to do is have a problem with consumer. If we ever did anything knowingly deceptive, we would be out of business with the level of monitoring that goes on."
Requests for comment from Kavanaugh CallCenter Group went unanswered.
Punishment is severe
The telemarketer said he is closely monitored while on the job, and penalties are severe for straying from the script. On second offense, a sales rep will be suspended without pay for three days. A third offense results in firing, he said.
"There are new classes all the time, there are always people lined up for our jobs," he said. "But the turnover rate is unbelievable, too. ... There's only two people left from my original class of 12."
The telemarketer said he is required to close four sales per 100 calls, leading many operators to resort to ever more persistent and aggressive tactics. But most consumers who fall for the pitch are either poor or elderly women, he said.
"Honestly, the little old ladies are the people who buy the most," he said. "What if it was you mother daughter or calling, would you want them to be lied to?"
A quick Internet search unearths a myriad of complaints against Aon and Macy's. Some are related to unwanted calls from Aon sales staff pushing debt cancellation; others say they were signed up for the service against their will.
"It just sneaked a charge into my Macy's bill," reads one account. "Before that I had no idea that I 'bought' a credit protection plan that I never wanted at all. … This is just outrageous!"
The telemarketer did not blame Macy's for what he called deceptive sales tactics. He said the firm routinely listens in on what it thinks are randomly selected phone solicitations. But the calls actually are orchestrated so Macy's officials don't hear the deceptive tactics practiced at the call center, he said.
"I would not be surprised if some of (Macy's) surprise is genuine," he said. "We hide the stuff we're doing from Macy's.".
Other assertions he made about the Macy's program, which he called unfair, included:
Red Tape Wrestling Tips
It's hard to imagine a situation where debt cancellation is a good deal. Other forms of insurance are cheaper and will also pay your bills in some situations.
While debt cancellation isn't viewed as insurance by regulators, it's essentially the same type of product. And as with any insurance, you never know what you have until you have to make a claim. Debt cancellation claims can be a hassle. Firms often require tedious amounts of paperwork and require that consumers be out of work for at least 90 days before they receive any benefit.
Pushy telemarketing isn't the only way debt cancellation is sold to consumers. Store clerks sometimes fill out credit applications at cash registers for consumers, and check a box automatically signing up the applicant for debt cancellation service. That's what Jamison Frady of Reno, Nev., said happened to him. He bought a television for $2,400 from Best Buy in 2008 using a "Same as Cash" program, and ignored his bills for about a year, as he had no balance due. Only then did he notice that Best Buy had enrolled him in a $20-per-month debt cancellation service provided by HSBC Retail Services – and he had racked up more than $200 in charges. When he complained, he received an e-mail from HSBC saying, "We would be more than happy to discuss the advantages of this program with you."
Consumers should always fill out their own credit card applications – even if there's a big line behind you at the store – and make sure the debt cancellation box is not checked.