When companies make it hard for you to pay money they are owed


Elissa Ely runs into a bureaucratic wall trying to pay her invalid mother's credit card bill. They won't tell her the outstanding balance on her mother's account because "it seemed to run the risk that a stranger might pay someone else's bill."

My own mother ran into a similar problem. She wanted to find out the balance in an old elementary school bank account of mine that we both had long forgotten about. She went to the bank (this was pre-Internet) to obtain the balance, but the bank wouldn't tell her since she wasn't the account holder. My mother asked if she could make a deposit into the account, and they said that was allowed. She made a one-dollar deposit into the account, and at the bottom of the the receipt was the account balance.

Comments (22)
  1. Kevin Marquette says:

    They will not tell you the balance for the card holders safty.  If you call up and they dont think you are who they say you are, they will not even give you your own balance.

    Examples like this make it look like the system is messed up.  But the mother never gave the company the right to allow her child access to the account.  

    If your wife is not on the account (or she opened the account in your name and not hers) then also is not allowed to get that information.

  2. Narr says:

    If your wife is not on the account (or she

    opened the account in your name and not hers)

    then also is not allowed to get that information.

    ???

    The whole point was them saying that she’s not allowed to see it, and then giving it to her unwittingly anyways.

  3. Joytotheworld says:

    The sister of a friend recently moved from the U.S. to Kenya.  The phone company there refuses to send a bill and will not tell the month’s balance, so the phone is regularly turned off for non-payment.  In order to get phone service back on, you have to pay a large "fine."  Some system.

  4. nj says:

    Why should random strangers be able to get details about somebody else’s account? What they want to do with that information isn’t relevent to privacy.

    Clearly, there should be a way (eg, power for attorny) for this person’s "invalid mother" to grant access to that information. It’s illegal (and it should be) for the bank to pass any information out without the owner’s explicit permission.

  5. Gabe says:

    Releasing your available credit is a risk; releasing your balance is not so much of a risk.

  6. Brian says:

    They really shouldn’t have given her any information without seeing the power of attorney.  Sure, she says she’s the woman’s daughter, and she says the woman is too ill to come to the phone, and she says she’s only going to use the information to pay the bill.

    Around here, we’d call that social engineering.

  7. Zippy says:

    I had an account a long time ago (30+ years). The balance dipped to $0.26, but they had a minimum withdrawal amount of $1.00. Consequently, they wouldn’t let me close the account. So, I just left the money there, and received statements for several years, until it was dissolved due to inactivity.

  8. nj says:

    "Releasing your available credit is a risk; releasing your balance is not so much of a risk."

    "Not much of a risk" implies that there is a risk.

    And privacy has nothing to do with the value of the information. It’s not up to the bank to decide what information of yours is appropriate to reveal to random people who ask for it.

  9. Andy-Pennell says:

    In my thirties I tried to close a savings account I opened when I was eight (to buy a bike). They rejected the paperwork as the signature didn’t match. Hardly a surprise that a 8yr old’s signature doesn’t look like a 30-somethings.

  10. Jimmy Carter says:

    When I split up with my first wife, there was some confusion as to who was going to take over the balance of which credit card, and one card fell through the cracks with a substantial balance on it. The debt on that card was sold off to a "collections" company which didn’t make any actual effort at collection of the debt. When it came time for my second wife and I to buy a house, we were surprised to find this $8K debt on our credit report.

    We contacted the collections company and tried to pay off the debt. They didn’t want to let us! They refused both charging it to one of our credit cards ("you might reverse the transaction later") and taking a check ("it might bounce"). Presumably, by charging a high rate of interest on a debt they had no intention of collecting, they could show more future income on their balance sheet. Ultimately we did get them to accept a cashier’s check…

  11. Kemp says:

    Speaking of releasing personal information. My mum needed a replacement birth certificate for me when I was very young (needed it for something and couldn’t find the original). They ended up not asking for any ID, and handed over a form of legal ID to someone who could have been a complete stranger. Luckily the system is more strict these days…

  12. Daniel says:

    The reminds me of a similar situation, a few years back, in Barcelona. At the end of a six-month stay, I went to a local bank to pay my last phone bill. Since I had quiet a few Travel-Cheques left, I asked the bank employee if I could use those to pay the bill. He answered that this wasn’t possible.

    So I gave the cheques to the employee, and told him that I wanted to cash them in. When he pushed the bank notes over the counter, I pushed them back and told him to use them to pay my phone bill…

  13. Glenn says:

    My insurance company made me do the 20-questions act in order to mail me a copy of my benefits documentation (to my address on file).

    Do people frequently prank call insurance companies and make them send account documentation to random account numbers, just for kicks?

    (Oh, and I still havn’t got the documentation I requested, after two tries–but I do have more membership cards than I could possibly use…)

  14. Jeff says:

    Kudos to your mother for being such a clever engineer(err, problem solver)!

    This is a wonderful example of creatively using the system against itself.  If the system won’t cooperate, exploit something it will do.  I think I’ll be a better software engineer if I keep this technique in mind the next time I’m presented with what appears to be an intractable problem.

    Thanks for the charming story.

  15. DriverDude says:

    "Do people frequently prank call insurance companies and make them send account documentation to random account numbers, just for kicks?"

    That might be the first step toward insurance fraud. Get the docs and then use it to gain more information/access. I’m sure the documentation lists insurance coverage and beneficaries, possibily with ID and SSN.

  16. DriverDude says:

    "So I gave the cheques to the employee, and told him that I wanted to cash them in. When he pushed the bank notes over the counter, I pushed them back and told him to use them to pay my phone bill…"

    Imagine this scenario: the bank or phone company previously found many people paying their bill using fraudulent/stolen travelers cheques. Or maybe the phone company does not want to pay the cheque-cashing fee. So they don’t let you pay your bill with cheques.

    But the bank still has to cash the cheques for anyone that asks. By forcing you to make two transactions, the fees or fraudulent activity will be counted against the "cheque cashing" service instead of the "bill payment" service. That keeps the phone company happy.

    It’s stuipd and inefficient but makes perfect sense to bureacrats and accountants.

  17. Garry Trinder says:

    Remind me a bit of a situation I had in college.  For a while, the registrar had my social security number wrong, so, for about a year, they considered me two people: one taking classing and no paying for them, and another who was sending them checks for no reason.

  18. James says:

    The funny thing is, my security lecturer told us of the time his wife went into the bank to get her PIN reset. They gave her a new one on the spot – without checking ID. *headdesk*

    A few years ago, I needed to know how much interest I’d received and how much tax was deducted for the year’s tax return. The bank helpfully said they’d send it to me; I was a little surprised to receive a large envelope containing a hundred tractor-feed 24" wide pages of account details, not to mention rather disappointed none of them related to me in any way. When I called about this, the bank was surprised and embarrassed, but I never did get the information I’d asked for. (I use online banking now, which makes that query easy to resolve for myself.)

    Another bank, where I have an abandoned account akin to Raymond’s (which I can’t close, because that requires the account card; the promised replacement card has never arrived), helpfully told me the interest received in the year. The assistant couldn’t understand my surprise that, according to her figures, my checking account with a double-digit balance was apparently yielding over 15%.

    Am I the only one who saw the references here to "invalid mother" and immediately pictured an error message along the lines of "invalid mother: please insert replacement parent and press any key to continue"? Perhaps the bank just has less strict parent validation rules than Elissa.

  19. Tom says:

    Banks are so incompetent.  Never mind PIN reset — that only gives you access to $600 a day from ATM machines.  I was able to *close* an account, receiving a *cashier’s* check (i.e. cash equivalent) for it, without having to show my ID.

    When that happened, I decided that (1) I’m never using a brick-and-mortar bank again (2) I’d be better off keeping my cash at my broker than at my [online] bank.  At least then I get to use two-factor authentication (secure token) instead of the ridiculous "twenty-questions" schemes that banks are favoring.

  20. John says:

    My bank actually handles the "make a deposit to get the balance" situation correctly.  They’ll accept deposits from anyone who knows the account number, but only the account holder gets a receipt showing the new balance.  Anybody else gets a receipt with only the deposit amount.

  21. Andrew says:

    "So I gave the cheques to the employee, and told him that I wanted to cash them in. When he pushed the bank notes over the counter, I pushed them back and told him to use them to pay my phone bill…"

    I had a similar situation back when I was a minor. I stopped by the bank to deposit a check and get some cash back (less than the amount being deposited). The teller told me I could make the deposit, but since I was a minor, I could not perform a withdrawal without my mom’s permission. I told the teller I had been making similar deposits and withdrawals all summer, but he insisted that bank policy prevented him from doing it. So I asked to have the check cashed instead. The teller happily obliged. As soon as I got the cash, I pushed a bunch of it back across the counter and said I wanted to make a deposit after all. The look on the teller’s face was priceless.

  22. David Walker says:

    DriverDude:  The documentation is mailed to the address on record for the account.  MY mailbox is locked, so no one else can "get the docs".  Causing account info to get mailed to the account owner doesn’t allow fraud, since I’m the only one who can open my mailbox… although mail does get stolen from other people’s unlocked mailboxes all the time.

    CHANGING the address of record should require lots of verification that you are who you say you are.  My insurance agent and his assistant know me by sight, and when I call, they know my voice.  That’s one advantage to using a local branch of a big, otherwise-faceless insurance company.

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