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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein
JUNE 6, 2000


When Your Card Processor Turns On You

You don't have to put up with late payments and high fees

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Q:  I'm having problems with my credit-card processor. Where can I get help?

-- K.N., Seabrook, Tex.

A:  A credit-card processor acts as a liaison between companies and banks, processing transactions, calculating fees, and returning funds that are due from credit-card purchases to the company's accounts. Common gripes include tardy payments, high fees, and chronic rejection of cards.

For most problems, contact your local office of the Better Business Bureau, or get in touch with the consumer protection division of the Texas Attorney General's office, which has a Web site that includes guidelines on handling business disputes (www.oag.state.tx.us/consumer/consumer.htm). If the AG's office finds that your complaint is valid, it will investigate and try to resolve the matter. The Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov) deals with some credit-card complaints but only in cases of serious and widespread fraud and deceit.

If you want to go to the source, MasterCard suggests that you contact the financial institution you signed up with for credit-card transactions or send details of the dispute, including your merchant account number, to MasterCard International, Franchise Management, 2000 Purchase Street, Purchase, N.Y., 10577. If you want to bring pressure on your processing company, an online complaint organization (www.consumerbroadcastgroup.com) advertises that it will select certain complaints and pursue them on behalf of its clients.

FIND AN ALTERNATIVE. Problems arise because most small outfits buy processing services from independent sales organizations (ISOs), freelance sales forces that offer small businesses better deals than they could get directly from a processor. What ISOs don't offer is customer service. Says Marc Myerson, CEO of L.A. processor Premier Merchant Services: "Once they get their commissions, they move on to the next merchant." Unfortunately, you probably signed a two- or three-year merchant-processing contract that has a penalty for early termination, Myerson notes.

The good news is that the market for credit-card processing is competitive and making a switch should be easy. Ask your bank about alternatives. "As a small business, your volume might be low, and your company may not be on the top of [the processor's] priority list," says Forrester Research analyst Mark Macklin. "It shouldn't be that way. There are a lot of processing companies out there who will buy out your contract and provide better service."

For more information about the credit-card industry, try some of these Web sites: www.cardweb.com, a site that covers the industry from the merchant's perspective; www.CCM.faulknergray.com for general industry information; and www.cardratings.org, a public-interest group that rates cards.


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