Why So Difficult to Make a Credit-Card Payment?

Helping her elderly mother handle her finances, a woman runs into an annoying difficulty: Tight-lipped companies won't reveal her mother's credit-card balance.


Faced with her mother's illness, commentator Elissa Ely has had to take on additional responsibilities, including dealing with her mother's finances.

ELISSA ELY: My mother had been in the hospital for weeks with a phone that couldn't dial out. When I checked her home messages, there were five from Lord & Taylor. One was from Mary, one from Sue, Olivia had called, Anthony, and a mumbling fifth. They were all on a first-name basis with this 78-year-old woman they'd never met, and they all wanted her to call them back. I dialed their common number. Liz answered.

I'm calling for my mother, I said. She can't call herself. She has a balance, Liz said. Well how much is it? I'm not allowed to give that information, except to the cardholder. She can't come to the phone. Tell me so we can pay you. You can get the amount through our automated account system on this line, Liz said. In other words, a computer could give me the information a real person couldn't. But when I dialed the number, Liz answered again. I cannot tell you what the cardholder owes, she said, as if we had never met before. I asked for the manager.

There was a long pause while Liz briefed her. The manager came on without a name because we weren't friends. I'm the cardholder's power of attorney, I said. I have check-writing authority. Could you send us that document, the manager asked? This was the rabbit hole, and we were falling. We want to pay you, I said. Well, we sent the cardholder a written statement on the 27th. But she's not someplace where she can get her mail. Can't you send it to me? This violated company confidentiality rules. It seemed to run the risk that a stranger might pay someone else's bill.

Look, the nameless manager said finally, I'll give you the amount, but if Paula - that's my mother - now the two of them were on a first-name basis - if Paula complains, I will be held accountable. We understand, I said. The balance is $221.36. I'll mail a check today, I said.

On behalf of the cardholder, I felt outraged at a ridiculous struggle, but I also felt strangely patriotic. It's a grand economy I'm trying to save.

SIEGEL: Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist in Boston.

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