Help: American Express Never Cancelled My Card and Now a Collections Agency Is After Me
February 15, 2011 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Last year I cancelled my American Express card after almost 20 years, just before it expired. It just didn't seem worth the annual fee anymore, and it doesn't contribute to your credit score. I then went out of the country for several months. When I got back, I was greeted by a collections agency (Allied Interstate) who told me I owed American Express several hundred dollars, all of which seem to be late fees accrued on the annual fee. I explained the situation to them, and they suggested I contact Amex, which I just did. More details below, but Amex just told me I had to call the collections agency - how can I get them to talk with one another so I can at least talk with someone at Amex about this?

Details: The Amex representative was like some kind of robot from a movie, and told me there was nothing she could do, I had to resolve it with the collection agency, but eventually told me she could file a complaint, and send it to OA. She mentioned this a couple of times. She took my information, and then when I asked what the process was from there, told me she didn't know if they would even call. Another strange thing was that she said she didn't know why I gave her the name of Allied Interstate, as a company called IQOR had been assigned to me.

I asked her what OA stood for, and she said "OA? I never mentioned anything about OA." I said, "Yes you mentioned it several times - is that the part of American Express that deals with the agencies? Surely there is some section of American Express that deals with late accounts and collections agencies? What does OA stand for?" She said, "I don't know what you're talking about. I've made the complaint and that's all I can do. You'll need to contact the collections agency."

And is there any way I can contact OA at American Express? I assume it stands for Outside Agencies, is that correct? How can I get the collections agency to release my file to American Express so I can at least argue my case? I don't think it's fair that charges were allowed to accrue on a card which was (a) cancelled (but apparently, not in their records; (b) expired and never re-activated?

Thanks - I've never dealt with any of this before and it's really frustrating. I had been thinking about going back to American Express, but now FORGET IT. Evil corporate nightmare.

posted by betsbillabong to Work & Money (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Send a certified letter to the collections agency saying you dispute the validity of the debt in question, and that, absence any proof that you owe the debt, they are not to contact you again.

Don't spend any time trying to get some person at Amex to talk to some person at the debt collection agency; these organizations are too big and too complex for you to spend your time navigating their respective bureaucracies.

For more info on the type of letter to send to the debt collector, see here.
posted by dfriedman at 7:11 AM on February 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

absence any proof

That is, absent any proof....
posted by dfriedman at 7:12 AM on February 15, 2011

Best answer: I don't know about American Express in particular, but in general, if your debt has been sold to a collection agency then you must then deal with the collection agency because you now owe money to them, not to the original creditor. That they can do this is somewhere in the fine print that nobody ever reads before signing the application.

But, it's also possible that this agency was just hired to collect on American Express's behalf and doesn't actually own the debt.

So the first thing you need to do is find out which company legally owns the debt now. And because you never know when you might be blessed with a CSR who doesn't know what he/she is talking about, I would make a couple of extra calls to get multiple confirmations from each company clarifying exactly who owns the debt.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:16 AM on February 15, 2011

Best answer: When you get delayed by the gatekeeper in customer service, escalate. Contact their corporate office. They tend to take these things very seriously.

Contact them here and ask to speak to the CEO. Someone from their office will do a lot better than the front line customer service rep...or at least be able to answer your questions

American Express Company Corporate Office | Headquarters
World Financial Center 200 Vesey St. New York, NY 10285
posted by inturnaround at 7:20 AM on February 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you don't like the way a conversation is going with a particular rep at giant, faceless corporation just hang up. Don't even say goodbye or express your frustration. Hang up and call right back before the rep even has a chance to log the call because chances are, you're not going to be talking to the same person - if you do, just blame it on a dropped call.

My experience with Amex hasn't been anything like what you're getting but perhaps its because I'm a current client. I hate to blame it on a rep having a bad day but it happens.
posted by jeffmik at 7:37 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

My understanding is that debt collection agencies in general have very little interest in the veracity of debt. In fact, if they cannot find the right person, they will do things like troll the area for someone with a similar name & proceed on the basis that this new entity is the appropriate debt-holder. I would go with dfriedman's approach, as they are legally required to leave you alone if they are not willing/able to furnish proof.

You might also check out the answers to this post on a similar question. I believe there is a link to Clark Howard's (consumer advocate & radio personality) favorite "drop-dead" certified collection letter somewhere in there.
posted by Ys at 7:39 AM on February 15, 2011

Best answer: I don't think you should send that letter, because it sounds like American Express wrote off/discharged that debt to them. If that's the case, they'll easily provide you with proof you owe it, saying they got the debt straight from American Express.

But people are right - do NOT talk to/deal with the collection agency. They are dead to you. They don't exist (in this case).

Call American express, as others have said, until you get whoever handles written off accounts or discharges, letting them know that you

You need dates/times/calls you made previously. Saying "I canceled it a while back" will not get you far. Saying "I cancelled it on April 13th, 2010 with a call to customer service" will. Scan your records, try to remember everything, write down a summary and relay this information. Don't take no for an answer. It is a major corporation. Someone there handles the credit reporting and writing off accounts, not just "the computer" if they try that one.

I had a similar situation with another large business - an improperly written off amount after the account had been settled and closed. It took 10-15 calls, several call backs from them, and finally things got straightened out.

If you paid something off, or it is a mistake, never never ever reply or contact a collection agency, no matter what they say. Deal with the original company who made the mistake. Keep complaining, keep calling. Write down which numbers you call. Get department names and department numbers. Ask for people's names as you have the conversations (don't start with 'WHAT'S YOUR NAME?')

After the first few calls and transfers go awry (and they always seem to), mention that in your calls after you start talking with the person a bit. If they get the sense you've been through the wringer, they'll be more inclined to feel empathy and take a chunk of time to find out just where you need to go.

Be polite but firm and confident. Talk to them like you know this can easily be fixed, they just need to fix it. Talking to the collection agency is not an option. Good luck.
posted by cashman at 7:52 AM on February 15, 2011

My understanding is that debt collection agencies in general have very little interest in the veracity of debt. In fact, if they cannot find the right person, they will do things like troll the area for someone with a similar name & proceed on the basis that this new entity is the appropriate debt-holder.

At a previous job, I was, among other things, "legal liaison", meaning I got to deal with the company lawyers (which was awesome--corporate lawyers are a surprisingly fun bunch). This meant I got various coworkers coming to me over a variety of tangientally legal issues.

One coworker was an Indian Muslim on an H-1B visa who'd received a letter identifying him by name, from a collections agency citing a debt from 10 years earlier, when Mohammed was in Dubai, years before coming to the U.S. He asked me to talk to them (his English was imperfect), so I called the number and ran through it with the agent, pretty conclusively establishing that their claim was bogus, but more importantly, that we were paying attention and wouldn't roll over, be intimidated, or be harassable.

So the collections agent says "Do you want to pay it anyway?"
posted by fatbird at 9:16 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is perfect for The Consumerist.
posted by theora55 at 9:55 AM on February 15, 2011

Can you get a free credit report to see if the 3 credit reporting bureaus report your AMEX account as closed and when you closed it? That might be helpful additional information if you have to talk to AMEX, especially if you can't remember when you closed the account.

And definitely try to get through to corporate levels at AMEX. I have had great luck with problems with large corporations by trying to get through to someone high enough to care.
posted by MonsieurBon at 11:45 AM on February 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone - I'm running through all this information. Ugh, it seems like a lot of work. I am tempted to pay the $300, but my job runs out in a few months and it just doesn't seem fair. On the other hand, I don't want to ruin my credit over $300. To answer your questions, they have now cancelled the account due to nonpayment, but I don't think it was ever closed. They say they have no record of my canceling the account.

What seems to have happened is that:

(a) The customer service person either did not complete my cancellation or somehow did not understand that I wanted the account cancelled.

(b) They sent me a card and charged me the annual fee. The envelope was never opened. The card was never activated. And of course the annual fee was never paid, and now they are saying I owe $300 due to late charges.

(c) Complicating matters, it now looks as if a recurring bill was allowed to be charged on the card. My understanding was that when a credit card expired it was not usable for any purpose, whether I cancelled or not ??? Does this screw me? Should I just roll over and pay?

I am probably going to try to fax a few people at corporate headquarters. Any tips for finding a fax number? I think it's easier to ignore an email than a fax - thoughts?

posted by betsbillabong at 7:57 AM on February 16, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone - no resolution yet, but I wanted to especially give a shout out to theora55 for the link the The Consumerist, and to stoneweaver for the advice about faxes going unnoticed. I don't work in an office -- i teach -- so I didn't realize there was a lot of fax spam.

I decided to send a bevy of emails to executives instead, as well as a certified letter to Kenneth Chenault, the CEO, at executive offices. Here are a few pages I found extremely helpful at the Consumerist:

How To Write a Complaint Letter

How To Launch an Executive Email Carpet Bomb

Reach American Express Executive Customer Service

15 American Express Executives' Email Addresses

I'll let you all know how it turns out!

posted by betsbillabong at 12:32 PM on February 18, 2011

Response by poster: It's tuesday at noon, and though I only received one failure notice from the emails I sent, I haven't heard anything back. I realize that Monday was a holiday, but I thought I would hear something this morning.

I just talked with someone at corporate who was extremely nice and extremely unhelpful, and basically told me that since the collections agency now owned the debt it was out of their hands.

I am really frigging busy and don't have time to deal with this. I will not ever let anyone I know do business with American Express.

I hate them. Really disappointed after 25 YEARS OF BEING A CARDHOLDER.
posted by betsbillabong at 9:12 AM on February 22, 2011

Response by poster: WARNING: from doing a bit of research on the web, it turns out that expiration dates no longer really mean anything. From the URL below:

• Major credit-card networks now allow a "recurring indicator" (a byte of data) to be written into transactions. Merchants that include this byte no longer need to provide a card's expiry month and year, allowing charges to continue on cards that may have expired.

• "Account updater" services enable merchants to obtain a consumer's new credit-card number if it has changed due to fraud, a change of banks, or some other reason. This also means that recurring charges can continue.

Combined, these two new features -- which most businesses and consumers are unaware of -- sharply increase the revenue of merchants that rely on auto-billing. But do these new methods also pose risks for individual card holders?
posted by betsbillabong at 9:15 AM on February 22, 2011

Response by poster: UGH! Okay, I need some more help.

My credit score was a very high 780, and has now dropped to 613, because American Express reported the account closed to the credit agencies.

I am resigned to paying but I am not resigned to having my credit reports ruined.

I read in another thread that one should only pay the collection agency if they provide in writing that they will remove any negative items about the account from all three credit agencies.

How can I get the American Express negative items off my credit reports. Ugh!

posted by betsbillabong at 10:11 AM on February 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, stoneweaver - I wasn't sure if it as cool to post it again, since there's a lot of info at the top. I'll ask the question again, or elsewhere. Appreciate your help.

posted by betsbillabong at 2:46 PM on February 23, 2011

Response by poster: Well, I have a much better resolution to report! I DID finally receive a phone call from AMEX HQ with an incredible apology and expression of disbelief at how I'd been treated by customer service.

They not only removed the bad marks from my credit report, but they are refunding all of the late fees and begging me to be a customer again.

Wow. I think what helped the most was all the advice at

So the takeaway is: don't give up! I am stunned.

- BB
posted by betsbillabong at 12:27 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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