Protecting yourself

Just say no to credit card customer service reps

Emily Crone

Whenever you receive a new credit or debit card in the mail, a sticker on the card asks you to call an 800-number to activate it. Until recently, I had credit and debit cards only with Bank of America. BofA’s activation process is incredibly painless: You call the number, enter your new card’s numbers and expiration date and maybe a few personal identifiers (such as last four digits of your Social Security number). The system recognizes you’re calling from the number you signed up with and tells you, “Congratulations, your card is activated.” You hang up and you’re good to go.

I never thought I’d miss a robot
Last week, upon informing my colleague I was going to Europe for two weeks this summer, she told me I should consider getting a Capital One credit card. Why? Capital One is the only globally accepted issuer that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee for purchases overseas. Were I to use my Bank of America Visa or MasterCard abroad, I’d be shelling out 3 percent of every purchase in fees. I didn’t want a new credit card, but I relented since I prefer to pay with plastic than carry a fat wad of cash while wandering abroad. I applied for one last week.

Yesterday, the card arrived in the mail. I saw the bright red activation sticker so I figured I’d make the quick call and activate it. Wrong. Rather than put you through an automated system like BofA does, you have to deal with a real person. In most situations, such as trying to straighten out a mysterious charge, dealing with a human is preferable. When activating a credit card, it is not. The customer service rep’s sole job is to be a pusher; to convince you to purchase services you do not need.

A frustrating conversation
I kept telling the guy with a frustratingly thick accent that I didn’t want any extras and just wanted to activate the card, but he kept telling me he was required to make me aware of the additional services they offer. He told me all about their credit reporting program and made it sound like it was a benefit of having the oh-so-elite platinum card. After his spiel, I made sure to ask if there was a fee. “Well, yes…” he said.

“Nope. Just want to activate the card.”

“Ma’am, may I put several cash advance checks in the mail to you? We provide the opportunity for…”

“Nope. Just want to activate the card.”

“Ma’am, may I help you learn how to set it up online where you can receive cash advance checks electronically? You can…”

“No, I just want to activate the darn card!”

This went on and on. Why couldn’t I just have an automated response on the other end of the phone for once?  I was finally able to finish the process after about 10 or 15 excruciating minutes. Then I had a thought.

Don’t be a push-over

I read and write about credit cards every day. I know how dangerous cash advance checks are. I know I don’t need to pay for a credit report service when I can get them free through It was easy for me to reject his sales pitches, but I realized how advantaged I was. Most people don’t know much about credit cards and are highly susceptible to these pushy salesmen.

My colleague Connie Prater said she encountered similar trouble recently when trying to cancel an American Express card. She was tired of paying the $75 annual fee and tried to close the account, but they wouldn’t let her get off the phone. They kept throwing pitch after pitch, asking her if she’d be interested in switching to a different card (which strangely had the same annual fee) and telling her how much they value her and want to keep her as a customer. They didn’t value her enough to reduce or waive annual fee, however.

My stepmother called to do the same thing with American Express, but she has the Platinum Card, which has an annual fee of $450. When she called to cancel because of frustration with the fee, they offered to drastically reduce the fee and threw in some other perks, and she ended up keeping the card. If you make the company more money, they will try harder to keep you. Use this to your advantage if you can. Ask for a lower APR or reduced or waived annual fee.

The moral of our stories? Stick to your guns! Any time you are pressured into extra credit card services, be it insurance, credit reporting or extra cash advance checks, pull a Nancy Reagan and just say no. Connie suggests this tactic: Tell them “I’ll think about it, but I’m not making a decision right now. Give me an 800-number to call back.” They want to pressure you to say yes right now. Research first before making that decision, because remember, what they’re offering may not be in your best interest.

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  • I have not travelled abroad, but I have heard more and more places in Europe are going to a cash only basis. It is my understanding more and more businesses do not want anything to do with American credit, or at least that was the way it was presented to me. You may want to contact the places ahead of time to make sure that you can use credit cards period.
    Enjoy your trip!