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My Very Own Risk-Based Repricing Experience

posted by Adam Levitin

People sometimes assume that I have a personal issue with credit cards because I write a lot about the card industry and often argue that its practices are harmful to consumers and to general welfare.

I really don't. I just think they are an amazing laboratory for examining contractual relationships and bargaining power. Frankly, I'm surprised that more people don't study them, because they are the most ubiquitous type of consumer contract and are at the very core of the network of contracts that makes up our consumer economy.

This week, however, it got personal. I fell into the card industry's billing practice traps. And the funny thing is that this is because the card issuer screwed up. In the end I don't actually owe any money (alas, there's still some issues to resolve)--but I could have very easily ended up paying a lot of money I didn't owe. The ridiculous twists and turns in my saga are illustrative of the serious problems that exist with credit cardholder agreements and why there needs to be legislative limits placed on the terms of these agreements.

Last month I saw a large charge on my Citibank Amex from PACER, the federal courts' on-line docket system. I have court orders from a number of courts that granting me exemption from PACER fees, so I knew the charge amount was incorrect. I didn't have an itemized breakdown from PACER, however, so I didn't know exactly how much of the charge was incorrect.

I called Citi and disputed the charge. The charge is a billing error under 1512 CFR part 226.113(a)(1). [Correction: Reg Z is in 12 CFR, but it is under TILA, which is in Title 15 of the USC.] Unfortunately my dispute did not compute in the Citi system. Because I was contesting an unliquidated amount of the charges, however, my case didn't fit into one of their eight dispute check boxes. (Note that Reg Z does not require that I know the amount of the error. See 15 C.F.R. Part 226.113(b)(3).) Finally, after speaking to a supervisor, I just decided to dispute the entire amount because that was the only way I could go forward with a dispute given the unbending parameters of Citi's computer system. I also contacted PACER to make sure that they had processed all my fee exemptions.

Fast forward to earlier this week. I still hadn't heard anything from Citi or PACER about the dispute's resolution. But, to my great surprise this month's Citi statement arrived. It says that I owe the full PACER balance and there's a finance charge tacked on for the disputed amount.

When I called Citi to inquire, I was told that I hadn't disputed the charge the previous month. This was in spite of fact that there were numerous notes about the nature of the dispute in my file. In other words, Citi had taken down all sorts of details about my dispute, but never actually processed that I was disputing the charge. Citi entered the dispute a month late, and only after I called to check up on it.

Well, Citi has now (supposedly) removed the finance charge and recorded the charge as contested. But Citi tells me that I need to submit documentation about the dispute or the charge will be reinstated. That means I have to send some 50 pages of court orders to Citi at my own time and expense for a merchant's mistake. The duty to investigate a billing error is Citi's. Nothing in Reg Z requires that the cardholder submit written documentation to the card issuer at my own expense. [Clarification: Reg Z requires written notice of a dispute, although card issuers frequently treat a phone call as adequate notice. But Reg Z does not require the provision of supporting documentation.] So why am I footing the bill? (Maybe there's language to that extent buried in my cardholder agreement...)

So what comes out of my own personal sob-story? Five major problems.

(1) It remains unclear to me whether my credit report will show a late payment now. Citi is not permitted to report me if the bill is in dispute. But the dispute was registered a month late because of Citi's mess up. The Citi customer service reps I spoke to were so incompetent (and my suspicion is that they were based on the other side of the world) that it was pointless to try and get this sort of issue straightened out with them. Thus, I might have been reported during the time when I had disputed the bill, but Citi hadn't yet recorded the dispute. I don’t have any control over the reporting. The only way I can learn if reporting happened is to get a copy of my credit reports (and I only get one free copy per year) to verify that I have not been reported as late, and if I have been, then I have to challenge that…all at my own time and expense and with no guarantee of a correction. We really have misplaced burdens in the credit reporting system.

(2)-(3) My (supposed) unpaid balance was $176.96. My nominal APR is 11.49%. For a 29 day billing cycle, compounded daily, this should mean a finance charge of $1.62. Instead, I was hit with a finance charge of $14.27. That means my effective rate was 101.211%. Wow! That's never disclosed on my statement. I had to go play with a compound interest calculator to figure it out.

Where did the extra $12.65 in the finance charge come from? Well, it turns out that my finance charge was not based on my actual balance. Instead, it was based on a "Balance Subject to Finance Charge," which is "the average of the daily balances during the billing period. If you multiply this figure for each balance by its daily periodic rate and by the number of days in the billing period, the result is the total periodic finance charge on that balance. Rounding may produce a small difference.”

The result is that I am paying a finance charge not just on the $176.96 that Citi claims I owe, but also on the $2,661.33 I paid off from the previous month’s balance (pro-rated for the 16 days of the cycle I owed it before payment was credited). Citi claims that this yields an average daily balance of $1,563.42, but I can’t get the math to work (and I’m a former mathlete). And I’ve even tried rounding. (Gee, does Citi round my balance up or down, I wonder?)

There are two serious problems here. First is that Citi is calculating my balance in a way I cannot replicate, even after playing with different methods for half an hour, and this is what I do for a living. [Clarification: Calculating the finance charge should be pretty easy to do, but I don't get the same numbers as Citi, regardless of the permutations I attempt.] Most people don’t have the interest or that type of time to waste on verifying that they are being billed correctly by their card issuer. They just have to take it on faith that their card issuer isn’t making mistakes or doing aggressive “rounding” or worse. This should all be computerized, but given Citi’s incompetence elsewhere in its dealings with me, I don’t have a lot of faith in the accuracy of their calculations (or alternatively in their disclosure of their methodology).

Second, this isn't double-cycle billing, but it is just as bad. I should only be paying interest on my actual balance. Or if I'm not, the disclosed APR should reflect the effective APR on the balance I actually pay. Citi is one of the cleaner issuers, and they're not above a practice like this.

(4) The late payment to Citi might trigger cross-default clauses or unilateral term changes on other cards. Here I am with federal court orders saying that I do not have to pay certain charges that are on my Citicard, and I properly disputed the charges, yet I could be hit with higher interest rates from other card issuers because Citi messed up. Citi's incompetence could lead to me having to pay more to Bank of America or Capital One or Chase or Wachovia. This is risk-based repricing. If other card issuers raise their rates on me, I wonder if they'll change them back after Citi corrects the error? If I had a balance, would a downward adjustment in interest rate be applied retroactively to existing balances? Is risk-based repricing a two-way street? Or is it like the rounding? My guess is that the house always wins.

A less assertive cardholder than I would have just lumped it on the $14 finance charge from Citi. Fortunately, I don't have any balances on other cards, but for a lot of other Americans, Citi's negligence could have cost them a lot of money, and there'd be no realistic recourse against Citi. What happened to the basic tort principle of the least cost avoider bearing the risk?

(5) I was sufficiently frustrated from all of this that I considered closing the account. But that would hurt my credit score. And I those $33 cashback dollars that I've accrued would be forfeit--Citi won't cut checks for less than $50. Citi screws up and it will cost me $33 and a hit to my credit score to sever my relationship with them. So here I am, locked into Citi despite its incompetence. Ouch. This shouldn't be.

* * * * *

As it turns out, today PACER contacted me to tell me that they had made a mistake and were issuing me a credit. So maybe this will all get resolved neatly. But that is only because I’m diligent with my record keeping and assertive about billing errors. Not every consumer is so diligent or assertive.

The next time consumer witnesses are blocked from testifying to Congress about credit card billing practices unless they sign a broad, last-minute waiver of their financial privacy rights, I'm happy to walk across the Mall and sub-in. I'll sign any waiver given to me. And maybe the card issuers will have to show their math and books in return. I’m still flummoxed how they calculated my finance charge.

Updated 3.30.08


I would never let worries about my credit score keep me from terminating a relationship with an incompetent service provider. The credit reporting firms are pretty murky in their methodology in any case and nearly everyone has some kind of petty dispute on their record. If they can find a more promising customer than me, then more power to them, but I'm dead certain my balance sheet looks better than Citibank's.

You're right in that the average consumer has trouble parsing the complexity of the terms of the agreement. In any billing dispute they are obviously outgunned. What they can so, and should do, is close the account if they feel they are being treated unfairly. This is something the card issuer understands. The consumer is only on equal terms when he is standing in the doorway.

Since you went to the trouble of writing this up this sorry story long form already, I suggest you write an introductory paragraph or two as a preamble to the post content saying who you are, that Citi's practices are in violation of applicable regs, and you expect them to correct these illegal procedures and you would like a reply. Also indicate that you've posted it on your blog. Send to the President and the general counsel. Perhaps also send to your state AG and the OCC (cc'ing them on your letter to the Prez and GC will probably you letter taken a hair more seriously at Citi; I don't hold my breath about the regulators taking much interest). It only takes a little more time than you've already spent to have a little sport with this.

Would have been smarter to dispute it with PACER, pay the credit card bill anyways, and wait for the refund. Then you don't risk a black mark on your credit history, and you don't confuse Citi's call center employees with complicated stuff like a federal court order. Worst case, you're out a couple hundred dollars in exchange for a clean credit history, which is probably still ahead.

Until the cost of a mistake hits five or ten thousand dollars, it's not practical to get a lawyer. This means that for transactions less than that, the law might as well be ignored, because there's nothing to enforce it.

This is a bit confusing. I don't understand why you would have a late payment.

From reading your description of the events, it sounds as if you paid last month's statement in full minus the disputed charge. Citibank failed to mark the charge as disputed, so your card was left with a balance, and you "lost" your grace period and incurred finance charges. However, assuming your payment was more than the minimum, you are not late. This doesn't take away from all the other points.

I agree with anon (2nd comment above this one). It would be a lot cleaner if you just paid the balance in full, including the amount being disputed, while you dispute the charge or work with the merchant on a refund. It would've saved you so much time on the phone with customer service reps who couldn't understand the complex nature of your dispute. You would not have incurred a (wrong) finance charge. You would not have worried about what they reported to the credit bureaus. You would not have worried about how other cards may view this. $176.96 is not a big amount. And it's from a reputable merchant that's not going anywhere. The lost interest if you paid is negligible. Yes, you have the right not to pay, but is it worth the complication? Unless you are looking for materials for a blog post, then it's a different story.

If you had gone the other route, it'd be routine. You see a merchant charged you too much. You pay your bill and you call up PACER and verify if they have all your exemptions recognized. PACER realizes they billed you wrong and issues you a refund. End of story.

I'm not saying what you did was wrong. You have rights. Just being practical ...

Why did you not contact PACER to start with and ask for a refund?
As a "credit expert", you should know that the credit card company has to allow the merchant a chance to rectify the error before disputing the charge. The first question the rep should have asked when you indicated that you wanted to dispute the charge was "Have you contacted or tried to rectify the situation with the merchant yet"?

"Nothing in Reg Z requires that the cardholder submit written documentation to the card issuer at my own expense"

The creditor may require that the written notice not be made on the payment medium or other material accompanying the periodic statement if the creditor so stipulates in the billing rights statement required by Secs. 226.6(d) and 226.9(a).

(1) Is received by a creditor at the address disclosed under Sec. 226.7(k) no later than 60 days after the creditor transmitted the first periodic statement that reflects the alleged billing error;
(2) Enables the creditor to identify the consumer's name and account number; and
(3) To the extent possible, indicates the consumer's belief and the reasons for the belief that a billing error exists, and the type, date, and amount of the error.

Some of the comments missed the forest for the trees in my post, and some of them, like JL and anon, missed the trees themselves. Let's start with the trees.

(1) JL is simply wrong. Reg Z does not require the card issuer to allow the merchant a chance to rectify the error before disputing the charge. An important reason to pay by credit is to have the card issuer as an intermediary in a dispute. And, for what it's worth, I state that I dispute the charge with PACER as well as with Citi.

(2) For anon--there is nothing explicit in Reg Z requiring documentation, much less allocating expense. Whatever inference one draws from silence or from other provisions allowing the issuer to require that I do not use the payment medium to dispute the charge, the case that Reg Z affirmatively places the burden on the cardholder is weak (expression unius...). The duty to investigate is the issuer's, once the cardholder disputes, so I read it as placing the burden on the issuer.

Now let's focus on the forest. A lot of commentators got wrapped up in whether I disputed the charge in the most "practical" way. That misses the point. The truly practical thing to do is to "lump it" and pay the full $14.27 finance charge. My time is worth far more than what I'd save. And that's a real problem. I shouldn't have to lump it. Lumping it isn't a big deal to me. But multiply the lumps by the number of cardholders and that's a nice windfall for issuers. Alternatively, maybe I should have just paid and then gotten the deal straightened out. But I shouldn't have to be out of pocket for $1 or $176 or $5,000, etc. Again, the time value of the money is mine, not the issuer's. Sure, I'm being a stickler about rights, and that might not be practical, but that's what rights are about. What good are consumer protection rights when they are not practical to enforce? This is a system that requires a motivated, diligent consumer to function properly. But as anon notes, most consumers don't fit that description, especially when small amounts are involved. So do we have one rule for disputes under say $10,000 (card issuer wins), and another for larger disputes (I get an arbitration lottery ticket)? If so, let's be explicit about that. It might affect how people use their cards.

Ultimately, perhaps because I told a personal story, the larger theme got lost--it's not about me. I'm a very idiosyncratic individual when it comes to cards. I'm purely a transactor, not a "sloppy payer," I'm sufficiently well-off that the finance charge isn't a big deal for me, I don't really care very much about my credit score since I'm not in the market to make major credit purchases (although it might affect my insurance rates), and I pay a ridiculous amount of attention to all communications from card issuers, but that's because it's my job to do so. Most people aren't like me, and for them, this situation could have been much, much worse.

Bottom line: all the problems here were because of an error on the part of a card issuer. If Citi had recorded the dispute correctly the first time, this system would be working as intended. The fact that a card issuer error can trigger all sorts of problems shows how little risk-based repricing has to do with actual risk and also underscores how hard it is for a consumer to unwind an error in the system.

Note that the two anons are two different people. I was the first one; sorry for the resulting confusion.

I think the more important point is that you, a lawyer who is already familiar with the applicable law, still couldn't find a better solution than to work with their stupid call center. And if the agent in their call center happens not to obey the law, then what recourse do you have?

It's not economical for most people to hire a lawyer, because the amounts are too small. You're a lawyer, so your time for this could be "free", but I don't think you would get very far if you sued them for the fourteen dollars.

Most small disputes are resolved informally, without reference to the law. If I go to a store, and they short-change me by ten dollars, then I will simply never go back. I'm out the ten dollars, but the marginal cost of the "remedy" (never coming back) is zero. With a credit card, the amounts are similar, but the remedy is more expensive; as you note, the effort involved in canceling the account would cost more than the fourteen dollars. So Citi isn't punished, and they have no incentive to change their policy.

There's no point in discussing the law, if no mechanism exists to enforce that law.

"JL is simply wrong. Reg Z does not require the card issuer ..."

It looks like you need to change something in your comment layout. It confused even yourself. JL didn't say anything about Reg Z. The person who commented after JL did. Move the name of the commentator above the dividing line and better yet make it appear before the comments.

Anon at 2:28--I was correct in my reference to JL. You're correct that JL didn't say anything about Reg Z. But that's the problem with JL's insinuation that a cardholder has to first try to resolve a dispute with the merchant directly before disputing the charge with the issuer. Reg Z is the law governing credit card billing errors, and it has no such requirement. Whereas anon at 1:15 has some statutory interpretation to argue about, JL got a little frisky without any underlying basis. In any case, my goal is to move the discussion away from the nitpicking and toward the big picture, as ltk's comment does.

It would seem that an expert on credit would realize that you get 3 free credit reports per year -- one from each of the three major agencies.

Wow. This post brought out all of the snarky lurkers (who might be the same individual). Whose ox, exactly, did I gore?

Yes, RH, I know quite well I get 3 free reports--and if you were a more careful reader of my post you would see that is reflected in my choice of language. I wrote about getting "a copy of my credit reports (and I only get one free copy per year)." Note the plural of reports. But don't let linguistic nuances stand in the way of trying to score some cheap points.

Of course, I get one free copy from each of three major agencies. These reports do not all have the same information about me. Therefore, if I want to be sure that my credit history hasn't been negatively impacted, I need to check all three. Checking just one isn't doing your diligence. And I only get one freebie complete diligence check per year.

I like to engage with readers who post comments, but a sine qua non of that engagement is a modicum of respect. I will continue to leave my posts open to comments, but going forward I'm knucklehead comments like RH's will be deleted.


I agree with your points in (2)/(3). It is entirely too hard to replicate the math that credit card holders describe in their contracts. They should be required to give you the calculation in the form of an equation, with standardized, unambiguous symbols used throughout. I'm a physics graduate student who is much stronger in math than the average person, and I have always had difficulty figuring out the formulas credit card issuers use because they usually present them in terms of a very obtuse word problem. I wouldn't be surprised if there are cases in which semantics confuse the formulas so that there are two vastly different quantities that may be calculated given the formula described.

Oops! Comment should read "credit card issuers" on the first line, not "holders."

Thanks for making this issue "personal". The APR problem (fuzzy math) is the same issue I have with all disclosure statutes (TILA...), the asymmetry in information allows credit card companies and mortgage lenders (HUD-1) to obfuscate crucial terms while paying lip service to congress about consumer protection efforts. Until the exportation doctrine is thrown out or National banks have a maximum APR, this situation will continue to deteriorate.

Great example Adam. Now I have to go and check my credit card statement. Dang! Personally I think PACER should be free but that’s just my opinion. Anyhooo…. Forest? No! Try Jungle. The Jungle for me is VOLUME. Small insignificant, barely noticeable charges hide in volume. If it takes the more astute to catch these “sneaky buggers” what’s that say about the majority of the card holders?

I do not think that the majority of credit card holders are nearly as sophisticated as Adam. Do they issue credit cards just to mathematicians, professors and attorneys? NO. This issue them to plumbers, factory workers, waiters, pipe fitters, roughnecks, etc.. It is in them that these nuances get lost in the volume Jungle. Can you say windfall? Who has all day to stare at a credit card statement and talk on the phone? I mean besides the people who blog here. No, the vast majority of consumers pay the bill without glancing at the bill to make sure everything is right… Ya, sure they might be able to catch a charge that may not be theirs but when they ask the credit card co. an explanation of the credit card charges, they for the sake of their time and sanity would have to take the companies word for it. No one here can say that credit card companies do not hide and deal in volume. That is their M.O.

For people to tell Adam you should have done this or that I think misses the point and to me the point is Volume. If a more sophisticated debtor like Adam is susceptible then how much more so are the least of us?

Side note Adam: When they did not let those individuals testify. Maybe next time you can recruit discharged chapter 7 debtors to testify. They have already had their finances opened up to review by the US Trustee. In most cases the debtors had their Bank accounts, credit card statements and assets reviewed by the U.S. Trustee.

What a lot of people consider is the opportunity cost of dealing with credit card companies. Personally, I would view 5+ hours/days/weeks of hassle over a 25 wrong charge not worth it.

Which is more important to me. Spending 5 hours talking on a phone to India, trying to understand the heavily accented words of "James", or playing Frisbee for 5 hours with my son in the back yard.

its a no brainier. And thats what the credit card companies want, they want to make it as confusing and hard and hassle filled as possible so they can reap in that $25 windfall. Even if they have to eventually pay back 50 percent after a month or so, thats 25*10,000,000 instances @3% interest for a month that they gain on 'error money'.

At least twice a year I have problems with credit card mis-billings. I have discovered that automatically disputing the charge in writing via certified mail and simultaneously issuing a lower civil court suit against registered agent for the amount in dispute tends to get it resolved without a lot of hoo-rah and so far, reimbursement for the $48 it costs to swear out a civil warrant.

And my credit report shows zero late payments as far back as the thing goes.

Bless all bureaucrats...they bleed too.

Nice.. SwampDude! I like your style! Sounds easy and I'm sure I could do it. I don't know if the ma and pa in the backwoods and swamps of La. could do it with as much ease as you and I. And what happens when and if they are asked to produce discovery and admissions? Should be easier than that to get a correction on a credit card statement. Not that your solution isn't a good one... Don't get me wrong. I like it. Should be easier than calling India to fix something done right here.

Just curious, swampfella: doesn't it cost you money (beyond reimbursable court costs) to find out who the registered agent is and to serve it? I seem to recall that was the case when I tried to sue the Mattress Firm (whole other consumer protection story) in small claims court.

Hey, great site! As someone who works in the consumer credit industry for a large credit union, it's always good to find a place on the 'net where legal issues concerning credit and consumer activism are discussed.

Adam, you are (of course) correct that FDIC/NCUA Regulation Z does not state that billing errors must be disputed with the merchant first. However, I believe that the standard VISA account disclosure does include such a provision. I'm at home and I haven't checked the mail yet, so I don't have a disclosure handy (I'm sure I'll have four or five in the mailbox though.)

Anyhow, good stuff. Thanks! You're absolutely right: there's a bunch that's stinky with many of the major credit card issuers out there. It sure would be nice if the financial services industry could afford to hire and retain well-trained CSRs who are conversant with applicable law.

In Texas I think you can find the Reg. Agent for free by calling the Secretary of State of Texas. I believe they have a free line for consumers. It's been a while, in that we have an account with SOS direct. In any event it does not cost much to find it online. It does cost to provide proof to a judge via certified copy. Most of the time if it is a Major Co. they will get it and they will respond. Its if they do not respond and you want a default where you may have to introduce the proof or certified copy from the Secretary of State. Don't know about other states..

FULL DISCLOSURE: I work in a disputes area for an Issuer, not the issuer(s) mentioned in this article. I agree that from a customer service perspective, you were failed in this particular circumstance. Not indicating an item is in dispute when it is and the subsequent hassle that you had to deal with around interest, late payments, etc is totally unacceptable.

My primary area of focus is the dialogue around customer / issuers responsibility regarding Reg Z. I have years of experience in Reg E (Debit, ATM, etc) and Reg Z disuputes. I have often found that the answer regarding customer vs. issuer responsibility depends on which attorney you ask on which day. I've interacted with the OCC, internal attorneys, and customer attorneys on these types of questions, and the frank answer is....it's gray. While the statute itself may not explicitly state what a customer is or is not bound to do, attorneys have often interpreted certain "common sense" provisions into it. For instance, if you want to dispute an item, it makes sense that you have to provide at least some basis for the dispute. The amount and type of information that would stand up to legal inquiry has been an item of discussion as long as I have been involved in the business.

If we were to take the flip side of the coin, and say that the customer has no requirement to provide information other than he/she is disputing, there are potential negative customer impacts there as well. In many cases the Issuer needs to work with the Merchant through a phone call, but more often a Chargeback through an association (Visa, MasterCard, etc). In my personal experience, the less information we provide (copies of documents, contracts, names of merchant employees, dates, etc) that we provide, the much, much more likely the Merchant is to Represent the charge (aka deny our claim). At that point, we are forced with a much shorter timeframe (mandated by the associations) to work with the customer to obtain this data, or be forced to deny the customer's claim because the merchant has provided suitable evidence to the contrary. In many cases this is up to 45 days from the original dispute and the likelihood that the customer still has this documentation is less likely.

So, as you can see, Issuers usually have good reason to ask for these documents / supporting information up front. By no means am I saying they get it right each time, every time, and in the right manner, but it is not as simple as "I shouldn't be required to provide anything".

Hope this helps provide some additional perspective and thoughts around these types of scenarios, and by no means is meant to attempt to justify the poor customer treatment you received in this case.

Great to hear your side Anon issuer. Good to hear both sides.

Can you shed some light on Periodic Finance Charges? How, when and how long do they charge that fee? I read the back of the statement, where they try to explain how its charged and how not to get charged, but it seems somewhat vague. Like they had a choice or something to arbitrarily charge it when they wanted. If it is truly the way they explain then I should have been paying the Periodic Finance charge every month until the charges are paid in full.

This is the situation.
Recently I received a statement showing the manner my payment was credited. For months and months my min payment was like $45.00 and this month instead of sending the min. I sent like $150, you know to try to make up some ground. All of a sudden is see my periodic finance charge comming in at $57 and my min payment was reset to $65 now! I haven't charged in like 8 months on all of my credit cards and I have been on time not just with card payments but all of my payments to cards, cars, cell phones, insurance, rent..... everything. The change this last month was that I paid more than my min payments to my credit cards. Oh and I opened up savings accounts for my kids. Again everything was on time! So instead of more money going to principal like I wanted it to, they out of the blue, took more in interest. No cash advances, no balance transfers. None of that ever. All purchases.... along time ago.

So by the explanation they give on the back of the statement, I should have been charged a periodic finance charge every month that I carried a balance on my card and it should have been a certain amount. So then why am I charged at a higher rate this month than I had in previous months and shouldn’t my periodic finance charges go down exponentially as I pay more and more toward principal over the months I have been paying and not charging? The charges are supposed to increase by a certain % on any new charges. I get that, but I had no new charges or late charges for that matter.


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