Bad news, my grandfather liked to say, always comes Certified Mail. If you have to sign for a letter, he believed, it must mean something is wrong. In February of this year, I found out just how right he had been.
My certified letter was from Citibank, which is the consumer division of the financial behemoth Citigroup. Citigroup you may recall, has been in the news quite a bit this week, mainly because they have earned the ire of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren for lobbying to include a provision in the 2015 omnibus spending bill which would weaken a key portion of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. But I digress.
The letter Citibank sent me said I was “severely past due” in payments on my Visa card which had been issued by them. I owed them approximately $5,000–to be exact, $4987.22–and they were taking legal action against me. Trust me, if you ever get a letter like this from a credit card company, you won’t soon forget the threatening language with which they choose to both berate and cajole you into paying them ASAP. There was, however, a problem: I didn’t have a Visa card from Citibank. My credit card had been issued from the bank where I have my checking and savings accounts, and that bank was not and never had been Citibank or Citigroup.
This is easily solved, I recall thinking at the time. I’ll just call the 800 number here on the letter and straighten this whole thing out. When I did, I was confronted with a customer-service representative who told me Citibank had not made a mistake and she did not appreciate me attempting to “deny the facts of the case.” What facts? I protested. I don’t have a card issued through your bank. “Financial crimes are taken very seriously by the U.S. government,” she retorted. Frustrated, I remarked in an offhanded way that I was beginning to wonder if her company was attempting to extort $5,000 from me. She chuckled dismissively and told me, “We do not need to extort people for money, sir. We are one of the largest banks in the world and we have better things to do than bother you for money you don’t owe.” That, I have to admit, left me speechless. What kind of Kafkaesque logic was being employed by this person?
My next step was to write letters to Citibank pleading my case and once again stating, with absolute certainty, that I had never been a customer of their bank. Again, I got nowhere. They would send more certified letters to me, and with each they would lower the amount I could pay to make the entire matter disappear. When they got to $2,500 and said it was their final offer, I called an attorney. He advised me to stand firm and not give into their demands. So for nine months I exchanged hundreds of calls, letters, and emails with this multinational financial power.
And then in November I received a letter from Citibank via First Class mail. I didn’t have to sign for this one. In it, they admitted they had made a mistake and sent the initial correspondence in error. “We hope you will accept our apology and look forward to possibly serving you in the future,” the letter stated. End of story, right? Not quite.
A week later I went to the mailbox and took out an offer for a Citibank credit card with a pre-approved $5,000 credit limit. I have to admit it gave me immense pleasure to run the thing through the shredder in my home office.