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Column: What do you do if a business furloughs everyone you need to speak with?

A Sherman Oaks lawyer found an "adverse report" from Macy's on her credit file. Then she discovered the entire department that can help fix the problem is furloughed.
(Associated Press)

Nobody likes dealing with problems in their credit files. It can be a lengthy, laborious process involving lots of documents and calls to multiple companies and credit agencies.

That situation may now be even worse thanks to coronavirus business closures.

Carol Scott, 70, discovered this after recently attempting to resolve an “adverse report” placed on one of her credit files by Macy’s over an accidentally late payment.

The Sherman Oaks lawyer said the issue came to light as she was seeking a small-business loan to keep her practice afloat. The adverse report from Macy’s branded her a credit risk, prompting lenders to halt her loan applications.

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Scott told me she had to make repeated calls to Macy’s before she finally reached a supervisor who would address the issue.

“The supervisor said there was nothing they could do,” she recalled. “She said they’d furloughed the entire dispute-resolution department and I’d have to wait until it reopened, maybe in May, maybe later.”

Which is to say, too bad about your credit file, but you’re on your own.

OK, a couple of thoughts immediately come to mind.

First, Macy’s is by no means alone in temporarily (or permanently) telling employees not to report for work. Many businesses have resorted to similar measures to help weather the coronavirus storm.

Second, what do Macy’s and other consumer-focused companies expect customers to do when troubles such as this arise?

“There is no excuse for harming people’s credit standing in these uncertain financial times,” said Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Consumer Action.

I asked Macy’s about Scott’s situation. The company responded with a brief, two-sentence statement. I’ll get back to that.

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Macy’s announced at the end of March that it was furloughing most of its 125,000 employees because of the pandemic, which had forced it to close all of its 775 stores.

The company said it was “moving to the absolute minimum workforce needed to maintain basic operations. This means the majority of our colleagues will go on furlough.”

Similar moves were announced by Nordstrom, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Gap, Best Buy and other prominent retailers.

Macy’s said last week that it plans to gradually reopen its stores over the next six to eight weeks.

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All retailers are anxious to turn things around. Stay-at-home orders nationwide resulted in an 8.7% drop in March retail sales, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the biggest monthly decline ever recorded.

On Monday, preppy-clothes maven J. Crew filed for bankruptcy protection — the first major retailer to do so since the pandemic erupted.

“March was a month that started out with many stores still open, but far more are closed now,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation. “Don’t be surprised if the data going forward show a worsening situation.”

Even so, business continues. Most retailers are still operating online, which means they’re still processing credit card payments and monthly bills.

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Which means issues can arise if something goes wrong.

Yet Scott said she hit a brick wall while seeking help from Macy’s in addressing her snafu, which involved a Macy’s store card.

“They kept saying there was nothing they could do while everyone was furloughed,” she told me. “They couldn’t even say which government agencies I should turn to.”

That would be the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission, both of which are charged with making sure consumers aren’t taken advantage of in their financial dealings.

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I reached out to the two agencies. The CFPB didn’t respond (wake up, guys!), but a spokeswoman for the FTC said consumers can turn to the commission for information on disputing errors in credit files and to lodge a complaint.

I also contacted the three leading credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — for advice on what consumers should do if a business can’t or won’t step up to help resolve a dispute.

“Consumers can request a current copy of their credit reports from each of the national credit reporting companies for free,” said Sandra Bernardo, an Experian spokeswoman. “Doing so will enable consumers to verify their accounts and any activity, such as late payments, reported by their lenders.”

Each credit bureau has its own system for disputing problems, she said. Typically, such matters can be taken up online.

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In Scott’s case, Bernardo said, “the consumer needs to check her Experian credit report, and if there is a late payment reported by Macy’s, she can initiate a dispute.”

But that’s just the start.

“It’s important to remember that disputing information with one credit bureau may not impact information on credit reports from the other two bureaus,” said Zehra Mehdi-Barlas, an Equifax spokeswoman.

If this sounds time-consuming, it is. I spent many hours restoring order to my own credit files after an ugly episode of identity theft. It’s quite a production.

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So what did Macy’s have to say? A spokesperson said by email that “we are working with our customers to address their individual situations,” which suggests Scott isn’t the only one facing difficulties.

“If a customer has a question specifically on credit reporting, we instruct them to write to a monitored address — this team is not furloughed and is actively reviewing cases,” the spokesperson said.

I replied that Scott said she spoke with multiple Macy’s service reps, and not one instructed her to reach the unfurloughed team via a “monitored” email address.

“As it relates to this case, we apologize for any confusion,” the spokesperson wrote back. “We have increased awareness of this matter to support our agents and improve [the] customer experience.”

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I asked why Macy’s is reporting late payments to credit agencies during a public health crisis. No answer.

I asked for the monitored email address so I could share it with other customers. No reply.

Weirdest of all, the spokesperson didn’t request Scott’s name or contact information. The company, apparently, wasn’t interested in pursuing the matter.

“If Macy’s still has the staff capacity to sell products online and place adverse reports on consumers’ credit files, then they should also have the staff capacity to handle disputes, too,” said Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group.

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Or at the very least, they should let customers know which emails are actually being read.


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