Collect call: Kick credit complaints 'upstairs'


Dealing with a collection agency is never pleasant– but dealing with one when it's not your debt they're determined to collect can be downright devilish. That's what Cindy Walker learned when the calls from Fashion Bug's collection agency began more than seven years ago.

Walker knew she didn't owe Fashion Bug the $300 they were trying to collect. She also knew she wasn't the woman the callers were seeking; that woman's name was Cindy Thomas. So why were they calling Walker? Because Cindy Walker is married to Carl Thomas– and their phone is listed under "C. Thomas."

Cindy Thomas's number is unlisted, Walker explained, "and when you call directory assistance and ask for any 'C. Thomas,' they give out our number. So the folks seeking Cindy Thomas must figure, 'Gotcha!'" (By the way, for this story, I've changed both sets of last names.)

Walker claims that her efforts to explain the mix-up to callers were cynically received. "I ask them who they're looking for and they say, "Cindy Thomas," and I say, "I'm Cindy Walker," and they say, "Oh, you changed your name, Miss Thomas?"

"I've been reduced to temple-pounding rage, shaking fury, and tears of anger on those occasions. I get these calls two or three times a year, [and] I can't even describe how it feels to have some drone insist I'm not me and I owe money I don't!"

Walker claims that she's emailed and phoned Charming Shoppes, Inc., Fashion Bug's parent company, "a few times" with no luck: She claims the company's position is that the collection agencies "are the ones making the boo-boo."

Walker had concluded that besides tracking Cindy Thomas down personally "and begging her to pay her bills," there was nothing she could do– but emailed her saga to me just in case. Knowing how quickly some companies change their ways when a reporter calls, I took up the challenge.

I called Charming Shoppes' headquarters and spoke first with Amy Vogt, director of marketing. Vogt summarized Fashion Bug's attitude toward its customers by saying, "We care about women and women's issues," then turned the details of Walker's situation over to Gayle Coolick, director of investor relations. Coolick agreed that swift action was called for and added, "We're going to make this work."

Coolick instructed the credit department to determine which collection agency had been given Thomas's delinquent account, then do whatever it took to ensure that all calls to Walker would stop.

When Coolick called with an update, she said they'd found evidence of Walker's initial attempts to resolve the confusion. A note had been placed in Thomas's file– but when the company switched collection agencies, the note hadn't been transferred with the other paperwork on Thomas, and the calls had resumed.

"We're awfully sorry," Coolick said, that Walker's efforts after that had either been ignored or rebuffed with the "It's the collection agency's problem" response.

I asked what a consumer can do when a collection agency has incorrect information and refuses to stop acting on it. As Coolick pointed out, Walker's situation– based, as it is, on the coincidence of her husband's last name and first initial– "is pretty rare." In any case, she said, instead of dealing with the collection agency, the consumer should call customer service at the company where the debt was created and ask for the collections or recovery department. In other words, "Immediately kick it upstairs." And, I would add, be tenacious in your demand that the company take action.

Walker's case had a happy ending: A Ms. Hatfield called her to report that they were writing off Thomas's debt in order to spare Walker further grief.

"I feel bad they lost their money," Walker remarked, but said Hatfield had assured her they had "bigger fish to fry."

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.