THE GOODS : Credit Ease? He Wouldn’t Know About That


My run-in with GM MasterCard, I would later find out, was not exactly typical. But all the same, it may be instructive.

But before getting into my saga, permit me to provide some background. The consumer who purchases an item with a credit card has “much greater protection than he would have with either cash or check,” says Hershel Elkins, California senior assistant attorney general.

If a merchant tries to slip this savvy consumer a false bill of goods, the consumer still has the protections of state and federal law, and has nearly three months to make a protest. By contrast, other than filing a claim in court, the consumer who pays cash can kiss his money goodby, and the consumer who pays by check has little recourse once the merchant cashes that check.


GM MasterCard is not only one of the country’s most frequently used credit cards, it is also one of the best, insists Jack Harvey, director of marketing for Salinas-based Household Credit Services, the parent company for GM MasterCard and several others. In fact, so reliable is GM that, unlike many of its rivals that hire in-house representatives to conduct customer satisfaction surveys, the GM Card hires an independent service.

Harvey said that “90 odd percent of all calls” to the GM Card revolve either around questions of when payment was received or charges posted to the wrong account. All are resolved by representatives whom Harvey described as both knowledgeable and courteous.

So, I guess, what happened to me was an aberration.

When my personal computer died in October, I bought a new model from an independent dealer, only to discover that the “new” computer didn’t have the power I needed. Worse, I would discover, the new computer contained some not so new parts.

Easy enough, right? I had the receipt. I also had a merchant who refused to either refund my purchase or to upgrade it to an out-of-the-box brand model at a rate advertised by a competitor, with my paying the price differential.

So I bought an out-of-the-box computer elsewhere and wrote GM in October about the problem. Their response was, indeed, knowledgeable and courteous: Claim denied.

Their investigation, they wrote, revealed that when I bought my new computer, I had signed the appropriate credit card form. My signature, they said, bound me to the transaction. And, by the way, I also owed them late fees.


I finally got through to a GM representative, who wanted to know whether the new computer had been delivered to my house, or had I picked it up at the store? I had picked it up at the store.

That was the problem, she said. The GM card could only cancel the charge if I had had the computer delivered.

When I asked for a copy of these regulations, my case was shifted to an official who seemingly never answered his phone. To reach his machine, I had to call the 800 number, explain to the customer assistance operator who I was and the nature of my call. Only then could I leave a message.

Eventually, this representative explained yet another GM Card regulation. The problem, he explained, was simple: The receipt did not explicitly say the computer was new.

So, if I bought a shirt at JCPenney and discovered it to be used, would that be OK? No, he replied. For clothing and other goods, a customer could expect to buy new unless the goods were explicitly written up as used. Unfortunately, this was not true for computers, which often consist of components manufactured by different companies. The charge would stand.

Only after I started exploring the possibilities of doing an article on the arcane laws governing credit card usage did this official take a renewed interest in my case.


Yes, he volunteered, there might be a solution after all, but it would be difficult. He would have to get the merchant to put down in writing that the computer was new.

Thus, nearly four months after I wrote to the GM Card representatives, one decision against me, three customer service people, half a dozen faxes, one registered letter and an endless series of phone calls to answering machines, the friendly people at GM MasterCard finally disallowed the charge.

Supposedly, the consumer using a credit card has taken the hassle out of shopping and the maximum steps in protecting himself. But no one promised that taking advantage of this would be easy.