Why Do Card Companies Almost Always Win?

California suing arbitration firm they say favors card companies over consumers.

May 29, 2008 — -- Anastasiya Komorova, a recent Russian immigrant, had no idea what was going on when bill collectors started calling her about the $11,000 in credit card debt she owed.

"One time one of them called me an idiot," Komorova's husband Nima Nayebi said.

The problem was that Komorova, who lives in San Francisco, had no idea what the collectors were talking about.

"I have never had a credit card with that company. In fact, when that credit card was issued, I hadn't had any credit cards," she said.

It turned out the credit card company had the wrong Anastasiya, who spelled her name a little differently.

But when the case went to private arbitration — not public court — none of that mattered. Like most consumers, Komarova lost to the credit card company in the private system of resolving disputes.

The fine print of credit card agreements states that disputes have to go to private arbitration, but the catch is that the credit card companies are among the arbitration system's best customers, which studies say gives them an advantage.

"They have such a success rate. A couple of studies have been done that show it is over 99 percentile, which is just astonishing," said Komorova's attorney, Anne Marie Murphy.

Rubber Stamps for Businesses?

The San Francisco city attorney is suing the National Arbitration Forum on behalf of California consumers. According to statistics compiled by the state, credit card companies won 99 percent of of arbitration cases heard by NAF in California from 2003 to 2007.

And from 2003 to 2007, NAF never ruled against a credit company that initiated a case against a customer in California, according to the lawsuit.

"To me the outrage is that a company is selling justice on the backs of some of our most economically vulnerable people," said San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera.

ABC News contacted a former judge for the National Arbitration Forum, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, who says she was forced to quit after ruling 19 times in favor of the credit card companies but then ruled once in favor of the customer in her 20th, and final, case.

NAF told ABC News that it is independent from any of its customers, that its arbitrators are neutral and unbiased and that professor Bartholet was not forced to resign. She was simply removed from a case at the request of one of the parties, which is standard procedure in arbitration and many courts, says NAF.

NAF also says the statistics on arbitration cited in the San Francisco complaint are manipulated and inaccurate. The company says credit card customers do just as well in arbitration as in court and that private arbitrators are as fair as real judges and are not the "rubber stamps" critics have accused them of being.

But it took Komorova years to get her good name back, after finally winning in her case in public court.

"It could happen to anybody and it could take over your entire life," she said.

What to do if you have a dispute with a credit card company:

1. Don't go it alone. Hire an attorney who may try to get the dispute out of private arbitration and into court.

2. Keep accurate records of what you paid and when.

3. Keep a log of phone calls between you and the credit card company.