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Can a Credit Card Company Really Come to Your House?

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There’s a new reason to carefully read the fine print in contracts you sign: to find out who might be coming for dinner.

L.A. Times consumer reporter David Lazarus reported this week that credit card issuer Capital One’s cardholder agreement includes some surprising terms. According to Lazarus, the agreement says the company may “contact you in any manner we choose,” including a visit “at your home and at your place of employment.”

But the “What’s in Your Wallet” company isn’t going to be in your kitchen, according to Capital One spokeswoman Pam Girardo.

“This language is not new to Capital One agreements. The agreement was recently sent to a group of customers as part of the ongoing HSBC integration,” Girardo said. Those mailings stirred up attention, but customers shouldn’t be concerned, she said. “Capital One does not visit our cardholders, nor do we send debt collectors to their homes or work.”

Girardo said that the company is reviewing the language “because we do not want to create any unnecessary insecurity among our customers.”

The confusion stems from an exception to the statement that Cap One doesn’t visit customers at home: Capital One does sometimes repossess sports vehicles it has financed when customers don’t pay their bills.

To end the confusion, Cap One is “considering creating two separate agreements, given this language doesn’t apply to our general cardholder base,” Girardo said.

It’s important to note that the Capital One language doesn’t grant the company any rights it doesn’t already have.  Anyone can knock on your door. This isn’t unconstitutional or illegal. Think of Cap One as a vacuum cleaner salesman. Anyone who wants can try to knock on your front door. In fact, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that door-to-door solicitation is basically a form of protected commercial free speech. Municipalities often have rules designed to curtail solicitation, but it’s generally unclear how these rules would hold up to a challenge in federal court.

It’s interesting to note that other nations have taken an alternative tack. In Australia, residents can put up “Do Not Knock” signs, and shoo away salespeople, who face stiff penalties for ignoring them. On the other hand, American door-to-door professionals will tell you that folks with “no soliciting” signs on the front door make the best targets, as they are identifying themselves as bad at saying no.

Of course, just because someone knocks doesn’t mean you have to answer. As is your right with the phone, you can just let them knock, or you can tell whoever it is to leave and never come back.  Returning, or refusing to leave, would probably constitute criminal trespass.

Rules governing solicitation on commercial property (that is, at your place of employment) are a little less clear. But suffice to say it’s very hard for large businesses, such as malls, to kick out solicitors.

More important, however, are consumers’ rights regarding debt collection, which are made abundantly clear in the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.  No one — not Capital One or anyone else — can call you and demand payment during unusual hours. If you tell collectors to stop calling, they have to stop calling, or you can win a pretty easy judgment against them for $1,000 per violation.

In other words, it pays to read the fine print.

Consumers can learn much more about their rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and about new rules governing debt collectors.

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