Cardholder Blues

December 14th, 2007 by Editor B

My friend JB was having trouble with his debit card on his recent visit to the Crescent City. When he called his bank, he was informed that Visa debit cards haven’t worked in New Orleans since Katrina. [Edit: I surely misunderstood. It must be just this particular bank’s Visa debit cards.]

I found that somewhat astonishing. Then I heard of HammHawk’s identity theft. So to prove that bad news comes and threes, I thought I’d whine about my little story of card-related woe.

Back in September, I felt I was overcharged for a hotel room in Alabama. The price listed online was $95/night, but the cleaning fee was $147. The amount of this fee was not disclosed until after the transaction was made. When I found out, I immediately called to complain, but I was not allowed to cancel. Strangely enough, I did badger one rep into promising a refund of half the fee. I said I would seek a full refund.

So I filed a dispute with the bank, wrote a letter, etcetera. They finally wrote back and said this was a “legitimate charge.” I called them up. When pressed, they pointed out that the fine print on the online form did specify “additional fees.”

I countered that the amount of the fee seemed out of whack, especially considering the amount was not disclosed in advance. They said there was nothing they could do.

I posed a hypothetical question: What if the fee had been $10,000 or some other ungodly amount that wiped out my entire account? Nope, nothing they can do. No protection whatsoever.

I then spoke to this rep’s supervisor who was more sympathetic. She promised she’d check with Mastercard. She left me a voicemail Wednesday. (I was home varnishing.) She said there’s nothing they can do because it was in the contract. She said, and I quote, “they can charge whatever amount they desire.”

Doesn’t that seem outrageous?

Update: As Sophmom points out, I should name names. My bank is Capital One. The reservation was made through Beachgroup LLC (part of Orbitz.com) but the billing was through a company called LeisureLink.

Update: I followed the advice in Carol’s comment and contacted Christopher Elliott. He contacted Orbitz and they gave me a call the following week. After getting the details, they agreed to refund the remainder of the fees. I just saw in my bank statement that the refund went thru. Since the extra fees included taxes, I guess that means this vacation ended up being tax free!

17 Responses to “Cardholder Blues”

  1. Adrastos Says:

    Uh, Bart, I take Visa debit cards at my shop all the time. It may just be his bank or his own card or something to do with encryption.

    AS to the rest, it is outrageous and a scam.

  2. schleifnet Says:

    file a complant with the local BBB, that’s what they’re there for

  3. Anthony Says:

    It is a scam. Was the “cleaning fee” on the hotel receipt or mentioned anywhere in fine print?

    Or.. (really I’m just pulling your leg now) did you go all “rockstar” on the room? What kind of parties are you throwing up there in Alabama?

  4. Jamie Says:

    That’s bizarre. I’ve been to New Orleans once every few months post-Katrina, and my Visa debit card has always been accepted. It was even accepted as soon after Katrina as February 2006.

  5. Sophmom Says:

    I’d surely have a lot more $$$ today if N.O. merchants weren’t taking debit cards. Mostly, I’m wondering the name of the online service though which you booked that room so I can avoid any future business with them. That’s terrible.

  6. David Says:

    Close that account immediately. If you really feel ballsy, leave a balance of $147 on it and simply inform them that you will not be paying it.

  7. Jedd Says:

    David’s advice, sadly, is not good. The bank will go after you for the $147 and your credit will be damaged. Here’s a better solution.

    1. Pay the bill.
    2. Put together your documentation and keep it in reserve.
    3. Find out the name of the corporation that owns the hotel. Check with the Alabama secretary of state (online database, most state SOS offices have them) and get the name of the registered agent.
    4. Go down to the Civil Court office on Loyola and file a Small Claims case for the $147, plus costs (around $50 to file) and add on some more for your time. For maximum amusement, make it for the maximum amount, which was $3,000 last time I did this. Tell the clerk you are going to file “Long Arm” which means an out-of-state defendant.
    5. Send the stamped copy of the suit by certified mail, return receipt requested, and let the fun begin!

    Let me tell you, while this route is a bit of work, it can lead to tremendously satisfying results. I am speaking of direct personal experience. I can’t tell you the name of the phone company I sued over a similar scammy experience, as I had to sign an NDA as part of the settlement. Go for it!

  8. David Says:

    I realized after I wrote that that leaving the balance is not good.

    I’ve used Small Claims. The filing fee is $75. The company will have to be served. If they’re in Orleans parish, that costs $20 extra dollars. Getting them served outside Orleans parish will be even more complicated.

  9. Brenda Helverson Says:

    It is pointless to file a lawsuit in Louisiana if the hotel in in Alabama. Unless the same owner (not necessarily the same chain) also operates in Louisiana, the LA Court won’t have jurisdiction and you might open yourself to a counterclaim that your lawsuit is frivolous.

    Unless you want to sue in Alabama (and I doubt that you want to spend the time), I suggest filing a complaint with the Consumer Protection division of the Alabama Attorney General’s office. A letter from the AG asking for their side of the story usually gets their attention.

    In addition to Schliefnet’s suggestion to contact the BBB, you might copy your AG complaint to their local Chamber of Commerce.

  10. Kelly Says:

    I agree that the $147 was ridiculous. I bet you could fight it and win, but it would take lots of time and persistance – maybe more than it’s worth, depending on how you feel about it.

    But here’s something I heard recently – that hotels treat their “online” guests (i.e those who book on the internet or through a service) like crap. They treat the phone-in booking guests the best. I heard that when there’s a room shortage, they’ll boot the online guests first (it has to do with getting lower total remuneration for the online stays, due to fees paid to the online service). So I’ve been making it my practice to search rates online, and then to call and actually book a hotel by phone.

    That’s what I did with the Royal Sonesta in N.O. – can’t wait for that trip coming up!!

  11. Jedd Says:

    David – actually, filing out of state is very easy. You simply send a stamped (“true”) copy of the suit by certified mail, return receipt, to the registered agent for the company. (Hence my comments on finding the registered agent via the Secretary of State for the applicable state.)

    Regarding Brenda’s claim that the court will not have jurisdiction – again, this is incorrect, in my experience. Most companies of a certain size (bigger is better) do not like to have judgments against them, particularly default judgments, no matter where. Judgments can, in fact, be transferred to another state once they have been properly recorded.

    Overall, the point of the small claims filing is to get their attention. While it’s easier for a company to ignore your phone calls and letters, in my personal experience, a court filing most definitely gets their attention and brings them to the negotiating table. Most likely, they will hire a Louisiana attorney to settle the matter. Again, this is based on my filing a couple suits against out of state companies; both times there was a very satisfactory conclusion.

  12. SJ Says:

    a while back, the Missoula Federal Credit Union posted an alert on its home page stating the VISA cards ossued through it would not work if used in NOLA…I’m not sure if that is still the case…we moved across country and left that account open but never use it…

  13. Brenda Helverson Says:

    Jedd claims: “Regarding Brenda’s claim that the court will not have jurisdiction – again, this is incorrect, in my experience.”

    Nope. Before a court can accept a case, it must have both personal jurisdiction and subject-matter jurisdiction over the defendant (and must also be the proper venue). Unless the motel in question has the required “minimum contact” with Louisiana, the LA Court has absolutely no authority over a company in Alabama. Even if brox sued in Federal court, the suit would have to be filed in a Federal District Court in Alabama to obtain personal jurisdiction over the motel.

    This one of the fundamentals of the Civil Procedure course that all law students must take during their first (1L) year. If your law professor didn’t teach you this in your Civil Procedure course, you should complain. Both my CP course and all of my trial courses emphasized this point. Did yours?

    Jedd, what you are suggesting is called Abuse of Legal Process. By following your advice, brox could have a golden opportunity to have his case summarily dismissed, to pay the motel’s legal fees (that could be rather large for defending an out-of-state lawsuit), and to pay sanctions to the court. In addition, the judgment, if obtained, would have to be filed in Alabama to be of any use.

    When you filed your lawsuits, what did you put in the “Jursidiction and Venue” section of the Complaint? Surely you didn’t mislead the court, did you?

  14. Jedd Says:

    I’m not an attorney, as you could have easily determined, so your snarky comments about my Civil Procedures course are apparently to show that you are a legal hot shot. So tell me, miss hot shot, if you have filed any Small Claims cases in New Orleans? If you have, you would know that the procedures are considerably more informal than in civil court. In my personal experience (and I’ll emphasize again that my statements are based solely on my personal experience) the judges are more than willing to listen to any reasonable argument. Furthermore, B Rox could always make the statement that his transaction took place on his computer, which is clearly located in LA. As to filing the judgment in Alabama, perhaps you missed my post above where I noted that fact.

    Finally, regarding your suggestion about legal fees, surely you know that “The rules of civil procedure and sometimes evidence are typically altered and simplified in order to make the procedures economical: one guiding principle usually operating in these courts is that individuals ought to be able to conduct their own cases and represent themselves without recourse to a lawyer.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_claims_court)

    Regarding the “Jurisdiction and Venue” section, surely you’re aware that there’s no such section in the Orleans Parish Small Claims form? All you fill out is your information, the defendant’s information, and a very short description of why you’re suing them. (It may have changed since my last successful suit, but I suspect not.)

  15. Carol Gstohl Says:

    There’s a syndicated column in the Travel section of the Times Picayune called Travel Troubleshooter that helps people with similar travel related problems. Many times the customer is given a refund or discount even when the problem was due to a mistake on their part. Contact Christopher Elliott at [email protected].

  16. Brenda Helverson Says:

    Jurisdiction is a fundamental concept of the court system. This means that you cannot file a suit against someone, say from Alabama, in a place where they do not live or conduct business, say in Louisiana. This is a fundamental legal principle – it doesn’t take a legal hotshot to know that.

    Simply put, a court in Louisiana, small claims or not and absent special circumstances, does not have any jurisdiction over a company in any other State. Otherwise, the result would be chaos.

    We learned in law school that one should not get one’s ego involved in one’s legal reasoning. You might consider this before you offer “expert” legal advice that is fundamentally and completely wrong.

  17. Editor B Says:

    Update: I followed the advice in Carol’s comment and contacted Christopher Elliott. He contacted Orbitz and they gave me a call the following week. After getting the details, they agreed to refund the remainder of the fees. I just saw in my bank statement that the refund went thru. Since the extra fees included taxes, I guess that means this vacation ended up being tax free!

    Thanks Carol and Chris.

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