'No payment, no interest' credit card deal? No way

Dear Opening Credits,I did a balance transfer to a Chase card. I did not realize, nor was I told when the card was issued, that it had monthly minimum payments. I have usually done payment transfers where if the balance is not paid off by a certain date, the interest is retroactive. I would pay on the balance when I could. I did the same with the Chase card, not realizing the balance. I made two payments, missed two months, then paid it off. Now, five months have gone by, and they finally called me to tell me I have a balance in excess of $300, and a payment of $180 will bring the account current. I explained my situation, and they are unwilling to listen/help. Do I have any recourse? Is there anywhere I can go to get help? I offered to pay a portion, but they won't budge. -- Shelley

Dear Shelley,I must say that I'm mystified that you weren't aware that minimum required payments are an intrinsic aspect of  revolving credit cards. Did you really think that you could add a balance to a new credit account and not be expected to send them some money each month?

The only rationale I can imagine is that you mistook a "zero APR on balance transfers for X months" offer from Chase for the financing arrangements that some retailers offer for furniture or major appliances. Typically, in those cases, as long as you pay 100 percent of the sales price within a certain time frame, you won't have to make any payments and won't be charged a penny in interest.

However, what you got is a standard credit card, and all companies that issue such products require monthly payments on what you owe whether you actively made purchases with that account or have transferred the balance from another card. To be sure you got that information, though, I asked Gail Hurdis, Chase Card Service's communication & public affairs vice president about your situation. "There is a section in the customer agreement that calls for a minimum payment," says Hurdis, who goes on to say that it also explains in detail how the payment and interest is calculated.

Apparently you managed this account fine in the beginning, as you submitted two consecutive payments. Then, for whatever reason, you skipped a couple of cycles before sending in what you thought was the remaining balance. Your troubles began when you missed the payments, as it caused finance charges and other fees to be added to the account. The end result: that unanticipated bill of about $300.

This leads me to my first piece of advice, which is to make sure you open all of your mail. You say you first heard of this surprise debt when Chase called you, but it is standard protocol for issuers to send letters alerting customers that their account is delinquent before making collection calls. Because you weren't expecting a bill, you may not have been as diligent about checking the correspondence from the bank.

Now, I understand that you don't want to pay the debt and have attempted to have it purged. Chase won't budge and, frankly, I don't see why it should. You were under an obligation to pay at least the monthly minimum (the "payment due" printed on your statements was further indisputable proof that remittance was expected), which, at least for a couple of months, you did not do. Because of that, Chase is fully within its rights to add on the charges.

So what should you do? This leads to my second and most pressing piece of advice: Pay it. Now. You legitimately owe the money. It's been five months since Chase has received any cash from you. Though the amount due is not large, chances are it's being reported on your credit report and doing some major damage. I'm willing to bet that it won't be long before Chase charges the debt off and sends it to a collection agency. When that happens, troubles will only increase. Your credit report will take another bad hit, and you'll be dealing with collectors, who are not typically a joy to work with.

Do not miss this opportunity to get back on track, Shelley. For a mere $180, you can offset the problems that will surely happen if you don't. And next time you enter into a contract with a credit card company, read the application and agreement carefully before accepting the offer. The terms will be spelled out -- from how much you are expected to pay each month to the grace period and fees. For now, consider this a valuable life lesson in the real world of credit. 

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