To crack firm's stony silence, locate its pressure points

How does one woman, 93 years old, living in a nursing home and suffering from dementia, fight back against a large financial institution like GE Money?

It fell to the woman's daughter, Jan O'Dell of Hurst, to try to help her mother with the dilemma.

O'Dell played it nice enough. She followed GE Money's rules. She contacted "General Correspondence" four times and "Presidential Complaints" once to try to get her mom a refund.

"I have not received a response from anyone at GE Money other than computer-generated form letters that do not address my issue," she said, appealing to The Watchdog for help.

"No one at GE Money seems to be listening or to care about their elderly customer who did not intend to incur or who cannot afford to pay exorbitant charges and who cannot speak for herself," she said.

O'Dell had read my June 27 report about an 82-year-old Fort Worth woman who had fought for months to get back $477 she had overpaid to GE Money. She finally got action because she copied me on her correspondence with GE Money and also threatened to contact the Better Business Bureau. Good pressure points.

But there's an even better way to fight back that's one click of the mouse away. I want to tell you about that, and about what happened with O'Dell's mom.

Two years ago, her mother bought a hearing aid through a promotion offering no interest if the bill was paid off in a set time. She promised to pay $3,400 within 18 months and made minimum payments until March, when she had a stroke that left her debilitated and blind.

The elderly woman didn't know what a lot of Americans are learning now about last year's "no interest for six months" deals. If you don't pay the item off by the deadline, you're billed the full interest for the previous months.

And making minimum payments is not the way to pay the item off.

With her mom incapacitated, the daughter did not realize that the final payment for the promotion was due.

"It was an oversight on my part," O'Dell said. "My mother had full intention of paying the entire balance in April, but she was unable to do so or to tell me to do this."

The next bill was a shocker, showing all the interest now owed: $1,200.

The family fretted, contacted a lawyer, then finally paid the full amount out of fear of additional finance charges.

After they asked The Watchdog for help, I contacted GE Money.

The company then called the family and sent a $1,200 refund check last week.

GE Money spokeswoman Cristy Williams said the issue had been that, under federal privacy rules, only the elderly mother was eligible to speak on behalf of the account. While the family presented paperwork granting O'Dell power of attorney, GE Money "interpreted" the document "as a one-time authorization" to enter the account, Williams said.

Additional communication with the family was denied after that -- an apparent company error.

O'Dell is still sore at GE Money.

"I can't imagine people being that callous not to respond, whether it was to grant my request or not grant my request," she said. "I wasn't getting any response at all. I just think that's terrible business."

GE Money sent me tips about how to get better customer service: "Write to the creditor at the address given for 'billing inquiries,' not the address for sending your payments" and "Send your letter so that it reaches the creditor within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you."

But I want to tell you about a better solution when a finance company is unresponsive. In Watchdog Nation, it's called "finding their pressure point and squeezing."

Who does GE Money answer to? Who does that company fear? I found out within seconds by doing an Internet search for this phrase: "Who regulates banks?"

I found two credible websites, FDIC Bank Find and FFIEC Consumer Help Center. I typed "GE Money" in the search engine to find which of four possible federal regulators (under existing law) oversees the company.

The Office of Thrift Supervision eyeballs GE Money Bank of Draper, Utah, which is chartered as a savings association. The government's 800-842-6929 consumer hot line is listed, along with the website and complaint information.

Once an official complaint is made with a Washington, D.C., regulator, it's amazing how the customer may suddenly get the kind of attention he or she was craving.

The Office of Thrift Supervision states that it "doesn't have the authority to resolve contractual disputes, undocumented factual disputes between a customer and a savings institution, or disagreements about institutional policies and procedures that are a matter of management discretion and are not addressed by federal laws and regulations."

But often, when faced with questions from regulators, companies view disputes in, well, an entirely new light.

Now you know the Big Play to put a stop to unresponsive companies. One question leads you to the answer: Who regulates them?

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber