Column: For Really Fouling Things Up, a Bilingual Computer Is Best

Everyone has heard at least one story about being victimized by computer billing. But in two languages?

It all started when I moved from a temporary residence in Mexico City back to my permanent address in the Los Angeles area. While in Mexico I acquired a “charge everything” credit card and when I returned to the United States I sent the company a change of address at which I continued to receive my bills.

Simple? Not if you understand the communication gap between Mexican and American computers. Bilingual education they don’t have.


In front of me I have a canceled check for $239.33 made out to the credit card company. I contend that I have never been credited with the amount and have said so in writing and by telephone to the firm’s office personnel who promised to check it out.

Instead, I continue to get bills from Mexico City and Los Angeles, followed quickly by nasty and threatening form letters.

The latest one reads: “Do you understand what a lawsuit entails? The court will render judgement in our favor, and instruct the sheriff to seize your property (automobile, land, house, bank account or salary) to satisfy this judgement. In addition, you will be required to pay the litigation costs and attorney fees.”

I picked up the phone to call the man who signed the letter. “Very truly yours —, Legal Department.” I wanted to tell Mr. — that the letter was presumptuous and certainly un-American.

The letter, I wanted to tell him, says “the court will render judgement in our favor ...” Anxious to remind Mr. — how President Nixon got in hot water for prejudging the Manson case, I waited impatiently as the phone rang.

When someone finally answered it was to inform me that Mr. — was out to lunch. The person took down my name and telephone number and promised Mr. — would call me after lunch.

As of this writing he hasn’t called.

So, while waiting for the sheriff to seize my property I sit here wondering where I went wrong to alienate the company’s Mexican and American computers.

Their letter said I “ignored” their previous letters. Have they forgotten that on Jan. 14 when I sent them a check for $307.02 I included a note which pointed out that they had not credited my account for $239.33 which I paid by check on Jan. 7? Could that note have been swallowed by the Mexican computer which spewed it out because no habla ingles?

Ignored their letters? Have they forgotten that on April 7 I wrote a letter to a collection manager with an Anglo-Saxon name, who should be able to read English, and said:

“It is incredible that at this stage I still have to communicate with you in another attempt to explain what is wrong with the billing of my account. This, after a note, a letter and repeated telephone calls to your collection department. I will try once more—without too much optimism.”

Then I tried.

In return, I got a letter, a full month later, which included a “member’s account itemization.” In it it shows the $307.02 payment which I mentioned above but not the $239.33 which I have paid earlier. I have a canceled check for $239.33. Which computer swallowed that? The Mexican or American? And why it’s it telling the collection department?

Then, a beautiful thing happened. I got a bill with a three cent ($.03) credit! In a telephone conversation the credit card company man explained that apparently the $239.33 had gone to pay my Mexico City account and that I had three cents left from that. I tried to explain that I didn’t have a Mexico City account and a Los Angeles account. That I had left Mexico in December, 1968, and had changed my address and so had gotten all my Mexico bills in the States and had paid them in the intervening year and a half.

The three cent credit, however, softened up my wife. She said that maybe, just maybe, the firm was right and that I had owed Mexico City $239.30 and that the $239.33 had taken care of that and so I should be happy with my three cent credit.

Well, I couldn’t agree because I wondered why the Mexican computer would wait more than a year to claim $239.30 and besides, where in the bills did credit for $239.30 show? All I had was a credit for three cents.

But then it was kinda nice to know that the Mexican computer now said I didn’t ow it anything but instead it OWED ME three cents. The three cent glow of satisfaction lasted only about a month.

On Aug. 5 I received a bill from Mexico City for 3,996.13 pesos or about $302 and a bill from Los Angeles for $409.63.

There was a charming difference, however, between the way the American computer and the Mexican computer billed me.

The American computer sent along a letter saying the sheriff would take away all my property while the Mexican computer sent, along with the bill, a form on which it asked me to recommend friends for that credit card company’s service.