Are Credit Card Companies Dealing in Debt?

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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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.

"You could be in a restaurant and your card gets declined, what do you do? You have to call in," Colombo said. And that meant another chance to sell. "Sorry about the dinner, we'll fix it so you can pay for the dinner, and by the way, you have $20,000 available so let's find a way to get it into your checking account."

But what bothered Colombo most, she said, was being discouraged from telling military families that they were eligible -- by law -- to have their interest rates frozen at prime, currently 5 percent.

"We were told you cannot offer the Soldiers and Sailors Act rate unless they specifically ask. They must say 'Hi, I'm calling, my husband's on active duty, I'm aware of Soldiers and Sailors Act. What do I need to do?' But most Americans aren't aware of it," Colombo said.

'It's Tough to Swallow'

Colombo says it was a stressful job that she hated.

"Ask any of my children," she said. "I would come home and I would be crying in the sink doing dishes."

Being a single mother of three with a mortgage to pay is what drove her "to keep my feet going forward every day."

On the other end of the phone were people like Josh and Jennifer Grant, parents of two young girls, Sierra and Sydney, who live in Waterville, Maine. Josh Grant is a self-employed trucker, Jennifer Grant works at a local hospital. They're $28,000 in debt.

Sitting at the family's kitchen table, Josh Grant pulled out his latest bill -- every few days he spends hundreds of dollars on fuel for his 22-wheel truck. He pays his bill weekly -- a total of $6,600 last month. But he spent $7,299 on fuel. That's how his bill grows -- not from spending on lavish dinners or expensive vacations, but from the high cost of diesel as he tries to make a living.

As he's showing"Nightline" the bill, we discover that he has gone $54 over his $21,000 credit limit -- and been charged a $39 over-limit fee.

"I didn't even see that, to be honest with you," he said. "When you get charged for being $50 over it's tough to swallow." They hope to pay off their debt in five to ten years. "That would be a good scenario," Jennifer Grant said.

Harvard Law professor and credit expert Elizabeth Warren said it's harder than ever to escape what she calls the "tricks and traps" of the credit industry.

"I wish I could tell you what you need to avoid the tricks and traps," she said. "But the reality is the game is loaded toward the credit card company. I can't read my own credit card contract. And I've taught contract law for more than 25 years."

How to avoid the hard sell? Strong use of the word "no," Colombo and Young said.

"Only if you gave me a very definitive, 'No, I'm not interested and thank you for calling but I have to go now," Young said. "That's how you got me off your back."

Moving On

Young said at first he thought he was performing a "good service" for the customers. But that changed the longer he worked at MBNA.

"As time went by I began thinking I was doing a good job for the bank and the customers would have to fend for themselves," he said. He quit after seven years.

Colombo said she frequently waived or cut late fees, refused to sell what she considered useless credit protection and privacy monitoring services, even though she was told repeatedly to get her numbers up. She was marked down on performance reports for it, and eventually fired after four years on the job.

"I felt like I'd been released from prison," she said now. "I felt like I'd been liberated."

Colombo said she's back in college now, studying sociology and looking forward to "giving back to society."

Colombo left MBNA in 2005 and Young in 2002, both before MBNA was taken over by Bank of America in 2005.

Betty Riess, a spokesperson for Bank of America, said Colombo and Young's claims "do not reflect our practices. Bank of America has nothing to gain by extending credit to people who do not have the ability to pay us back."

She added that the terms of Bank of America's credit products are "clear and transparent," and fully disclosed up front.

Read the full statement from Bank of America here.