Are Credit Card Companies Dealing in Debt?

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Cate Colombo and Jerry Young say they used to think that people who got into trouble with credit cards brought it all on themselves. That is, they say, until they went to work for the former credit card giant, MBNA.

Colombo worked in the company's call center in Camden, Maine, for four years. Young, a former middle school teacher, worked there for seven.

"I was completely clueless," Colombo said of her job as a customer service representative. "I truly believed that I was going to go in and say, 'Hi, Mr. Smith, it's great to talk with you. Yep, I'll activate the card, or this is what your due date is and thank you for doing business with MBNA.' I had no idea that I was being hired to sell money."

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For more information on this story and for tips on avoiding credit card debt, watch "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET

Colombo said employees worked 10-hour shifts, four days a week and had set goals -- sell $25,000 an hour, which translates to $250,000 a day, $1 million a week, $4 million a month.

"Selling money," Colombo said, meant pushing existing MBNA customers to take out cash for credit. "If you have $50,000 available and I only sell you $20,000, then I'm going to be questioned as to why didn't I sell the full $50,000."

'Cushion, Position, Close

Americans owe $960 billion in credit card debit, according to the consumer advocacy group Americans for Fairness in Lending.

"The problem is that credit card companies push the debt on people who really can't afford it because that's the profitable thing for them to do," says AFFIL executive director Jim Campen.

How does it work? Colombo said they were trained at MBNA to think of each transaction as "cushion, position, close."

"'Cushion' being I need to develop a rapport with you and find a way so that you're comfortable with me," Colombo said. "Sort of pull you in to where I want to go. And once I've made you comfortable I then 'position' you."

For example, Colombo said, if a customer mentioned during the course of the conversation that "your son's gone off to college or you just renovated your house, I'll then come back to that and say, 'Look, what are you spending on college? $20,000? $30,000? I can get you the money interest-free.'"

The Catch

The "close" came, Colombo said, when the customer service representative said the magic words, "all I need."

"'All I need' is your routing number and your account number," Colombo told "Nightline." That meant they were putting the agreed upon amount of money into the customer's bank account, at zero percent interest for a set period of time -- usually six, 12 or 18 months.

The catch, she said, was that most of the customers would not be able to pay that money back before the interest-free period ended.

"I was essentially finding a way to force you to take $100,000 or whatever, interest free, thinking that you're getting a good deal, and knowing that it's unlikely at the end of the initial period you're not going to be able to pay it back, and you're going to be in debt for the rest of your life," she said.

Another tactic, according to Colombo and Young, was to decline a card for the slightest reason.

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