'Fee-Harvesting' Credit Cards Keep Debt Growing

When her mother tried to pay Applied's bill online, she was shocked to learn the bank even charged her a fee for the online payment.

Even though Alvarez and Koslan made regular payments to Applied – sending the bank nearly $300 over four months – Alvarez says she felt as if she was throwing the money away because her balance kept growing. By mid February, Applied said she owed more than $500, despite the hundreds of dollars she had already paid. Even after she closed her account, Applied Bank continued to charge Alvarez a $10.95 monthly maintenance fee to "maintain" her dormant account.

Manning says Applied Bank is one of the handful of companies he lists in his Credit Card Hall of Shame.

"When you add on the penalty fees and the services fees for payments, you realize that the interest rate is over 200 percent," Manning says. "They offer the consumer so little credit and it's driven by hundreds of dollars of fees."

Alvarez says she eventually got so bogged down in credit card debt she was unable to continue paying for school. So she quit.

"We don't have the money now," Alvarez says. "We're too busy paying for this ridiculous bill."

Cardholders Called 'Deadbeats'

Applied Bank, which issued Alvarez her card, was founded in 1996 as Cross Country Bank. While it has changed names twice since then, it continues to be owned and operated by the man who founded it, Rocco Abessinio.

Abessinio is a self-made millionaire who has cultivated an image as a benefactor to various charities in Delaware and Florida, where he owns a $3 million home.

But Abessinio's critics, including lawyers who have chased him for years, say his charity work only masks the money he earns from the low income borrowers to whom he lends money.

Some sources put his personal wealth at over half a billion dollars. While his net worth has not been released publicly, it appears from federal bank filings that he has paid himself at least $500 million, if not more, in dividends drawn from Applied Bank.

Abessinio refused repeated interview requests by ABC News and "Good Morning America" and referred reporters to previous statements he has made to the media about his business practices.

In press accounts he has defended his company's operation by saying he charges steep fees on his credit accounts because he lends money to the riskiest of borrowers. He says he provides credit to those others will not, but that his high-risk client base forces Applied to charge off millions of dollars in debt. In 2004, he told the Wall Street Journal he runs a "good, clean company."

That's not how some former employees describe his businesses. Former customer service representatives who worked for Abessinio at call centers in West Virginia and Florida have testified against him in multiple lawsuits, saying his marketing practices were deceptive and his collection tactics abusive.

Iris Taylor worked for Abessino's affiliate company, Applied Card Systems, for five years in Boca Raton. Last spring she was deposed for a class action lawsuit against Abessinio and his companies.

Taylor says she was told by employees and managers that credit card customers should not have fees waived.

"There's a charge for everything. That's what we were told from day one. This is a fee-based company. That was what we had to know," Taylor says in the grainy video deposition that was obtained exclusively by ABC News and "Good Morning America."

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