Tuesday, July 16, 2024

When Willie Sutton, the notorious American bank robber, was asked why he stole from banks, his answer was very simple: “Because that’s where the money is.” Today scammers far outnumber bank robbers and, if they could ever be found, would likely include credit card companies along with banks for the same reason.

Of course, neither credit card companies nor banks are the ones really victimized. The real victims are their customers. And not coincidentally, they are most often the more aged and vulnerable among us.

The schemes to which they fall prey are too numerous, intricate and ever-evolving to describe readily. Just by way of example, there’s the fake emergency scam whereby the victim is contacted on the Internet or by phone and told her grandchild is in a hospital emergency room after a terrible accident and thousands of dollars are needed for a life-saving operation. Or there is the tech scam in which the victim is told his account has been charged a significant amount of money and to immediately call some phone number to correct the error. When the victim gives access to his account, the scammer is able to drain its money.

Banks and credit card companies are very much aware of these schemes. So, too, are law enforcement, federal and state regulatory agencies and the AARP, an association for older and retired people. They warn customers of scammers and many of their schemes on the net in articles and videos for that purpose.

Recourse may still be had against either a bank or credit card company, but they do their utmost to avoid this. They may acknowledge the customer’s complaint and even promise to undertake a thorough and complete investigation – but customers will find their phone calls and messages are almost never answered. Other times they will be referred to a useless department promisingly titled “investigations” or “regulatory compliance” in some distant state if not in Costa Rica, the Philippines, Sri Lanka or India.

Whatever is done or not done, no compensation will ultimately be offered. The bank or credit card company anticipates that the customer will give up and go away.

The customer should not go away. Compensation can very often be obtained if the bank or credit card company is confronted by a competent lawyer, one who is clearly prepared to file suit and go to trial if necessary to subject the bank or credit card’s intransigence to public disclosure.

Some but not all courts will rely on statutory and case law to minimize the responsibilities of the bank or credit card company. The customer may have arguably signed away the right to a jury trial and even agreed to no more than arbitration. But adverse publicity and the cost and uncertainty involved in having to litigate will make recovery from the bank or credit company more than probable if the customer agrees to sign a nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreement.

The wisdom of the above is not based on mere theory or hypothesis. It could be well documented except for the existence of the aforementioned nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements.

Charles M. Wyzanski is a semi-retired lawyer who lives in Cambridge.

A version of this essay appeared originally in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.