July 10, 1996 in Nation/World

Credit Card Tactic Sparks Controversy At&T; Sends Cards Unless Customers Call In To Decline

Dana Fields Associated Press
 

Don’t toss that next piece of pitch-mail you get from AT&T;, or you could wind up in possession of a credit card you neither asked for nor wanted.

AT&T; has been sending letters since April to some of its calling-card holders alerting them they’ll soon be receiving an AT&T; Universal MasterCard - unless they call the company to say they don’t want it.

A consumer advocacy group says the solicitation, while legal, forces consumers to take action to avert receipt of a card they never requested and to pay close attention to mail they might normally toss unopened.

“There’s nothing wrong with AT&T; trying to get new business with new (credit card) customers,” said Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America.

“It’s the way they’re going about soliciting that’s the problem. No consumer should have to call a company and say, ‘I don’t want this offer, I didn’t say I wanted this, and I shouldn’t have to take the time to opt out.”’

AT&T; is aiming to expand its credit card business while offering customers the convenience of a “substitution” card with a single number that will be both their MasterCard and calling-card numbers, spokesman Mitch Montagna said.

The solicitation is targeted at a select group of customers who already have one of AT&T;’s 8 million calling cards and have had their credit ratings screened, he said.

“We check their credit bureau reports to make sure they’re people we’d solicit anyway” for AT&T; Visa or Mastercards, Montagna said. “It’s not a massive thing.”

Those who pass muster will first receive letters telling them they will be sent a credit card unless they call a toll-free number to say they don’t want the card.

A lack of response will be interpreted as an affirmative by AT&T;, which will then mail the card. As with most other credit cards sent in the mail, the card will be inactive until the customer calls a toll-free number to activate it.

But Susswein worries about cards stolen from the mail, or from trash cans where they’ve been thrown in unopened envelopes by heedless recipients who never knew a card was on its way.

With enough information about the consumer, a thief could get the card activated “and charge up a storm” on a card the consumer never knew was missing, Susswein said.

Montagna said AT&T; had security procedures he could not discuss to protect customers against credit card fraud. And, he noted, a customer is only responsible by law for the first $50 of charges on a stolen card.

“Any fraud would be something we’d have to bear,” he said.

Susswein, however, said stolen credit cards can be expensive headaches for victims hounded by collection agencies to pay up or explain away fraudulent charges.

AT&T;’s design of the solicitation is legal, Susswein said, because - unlike those now-outlawed mass mailings by banks of unsolicited credit cards - the company is simply expanding on an existing relationship with its customers.

“But they’re right at the limit of the law,” Susswein said.


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