When Madeleine Otto was offered the chance to open a credit card at Stein Mart, a department store in Tequesta, Fla., and save $10 on her purchases, she jumped at the chance. She handed the cashier her driver's license, and waited for approval.
Except it didn't happen. Otto's credit application was denied.
"The casher said, 'I'm sorry, we can't give you a credit card because you're too old,'" said Otto, who turns 100 on October 18.
Otto was dumbfounded. She had never heard of anyone being refused credit because of their advanced age. It didn't make sense to her, and she felt bad.
So did the cashier. "She came around and hugged me and said she was sorry," Otto recalled. She went out to her car, and cried. "I was embarrassed, I felt bad about it," she said. "I'm 100 years old—I drive, I do everything myself, I shop. I'm not like an ordinarily 100 year old."
So, what gives? Can you be refused credit because of your age?
Absolutely not, said Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits creditors from discriminating against applicants based on age. "An elderly consumer can be favored for age, but not discriminated against for that reason," she said, adding that 'elderly' is defined as 62 or older.
On the other hand, consumers can be turned down credit for being too young; the minimum age to obtain a credit card in the United States is 18.
And that's precisely what happened to Otto.
The issue wasn't that she was too old, it's that she was too young—or so the computer thought. The credit card check system required the last two digits of Otto's birth year, which was 1912. The cashier input the year as "12"—which the computer registered as 2012. That would not only have made Otto under 18, but technically unborn—and not eligible for credit.
"It was a date input error," said Stein Mart spokesperson Linda Tasseff.
Otto was sent an apology from Stein Mart "explaining that the reason was because I was underage," said Otto. "They also sent me a $50 gift certificate."
Otto said she doesn't mind, but Detweiler, of Credit.com, laughed when she heard about the computer glitch. "Some programmer's going to get the lender into a lot of hot water by not thinking that through," she said.