Time Out on Cash Back

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Marta Vogel is perplexed -- as many of us are. Credit card confusion seems to be the norm these days, whether it's understanding how your interest rate suddenly quadrupled, figuring out why your on-time payment got socked with a late fee, or wondering why a card's selling points aren't all they were cracked up to be. Not a lot of clarity in credit cards.

About six months ago, Vogel, a Bethesda resident, saw an ad for the AT&T Universal Cash Rewards Card. It's a cash-rebate card that pays back to cardholders a small percentage of almost everything they charge on it. Like any smart consumer who recognizes there's a reason her credit cards are a bit beat up, Vogel decided the offer was too good to pass up.

The advertisement promised a "5 percent cash rebate" on eligible purchases at gas stations, supermarkets and drugstores. One percent back on everything else. Total rebates up to $300 per year. No annual fee.

Hey, with the price of gasoline alone, that's a no-brainer!

"Five percent cash back -- those are exactly the words on the card," said Vogel. "So I started using my card for gas and groceries."

But somewhere between the seafood aisle at Trader Joe's and credit card headquarters in South Dakota, something didn't add up. Vogel spent $245 that first month on eligible products but her rebate came to $2.45. One percent. Vogel called the AT&T card's toll-free number several times and eventually was told to send a copy of the ad that said she's supposed to get 5 percent and they'll investigate. (Wait just a minute. They have her account number, right? They can't confirm the terms of the credit card? Are they on Mars or what?)

She called again and was told her card pays a 1 percent rebate on eligible purchases and a 4 percent bonus shows up in two or three billing cycles. "I saw nothing indicating the 4 percent comes later in their literature," she fumed. "I should get 5 percent. This card and its benefits are advertised all over the place. It is no secret."

Enter the Consummate Consumer. After weeks of investigation, Samuel Wang, spokesman for Citigroup, which operates the AT&T Universal Cash Rewards Card program, had an answer: "We did identify [Vogel] was not enrolled properly. We have made her whole, and she was credited the amount as far as the rate gap is concerned."

Meaning everything was squared away. "It is something that we apologize for," said Wang, adding that Vogel would get a $50 courtesy credit for her troubles.

But come late January, Vogel's statement again didn't jibe. It was back to 1 percent now, 4 percent later.

Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, an independent consumer resource on credit cards, said in cases like this, "more often than not, the consumer is confused or doesn't understand where to get that 5 percent rebate -- because it's not every grocery purchase you make. Typically if you go to a Wal-Mart or a wholesale club, that isn't included."

No wonder people get confused! One CardRatings.com board member reverted to using a spreadsheet to make sure he was getting the correct rebates, said Arnold. "It can be very hard to track."

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