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AT&T Universal: Reinterpreting “No Annual Fee For Life”

Reader Bill has been a gold AT&T Universal Card since they were since introduced in the early 1990s and was annoyed when he learned that he’d be charged a $30 annual fee starting this month, September 2010. Here’s his email to me:

AT&T introduced its Universal Card back in 1990, and with the card came the written guarantees ‘no annual fee for life’, and ‘no annual fee–ever.’ Remember that? Well, I’m not sure whose life they were talking about (obviously not mine), but I received a notice last summer that my account would be charged an annual fee, beginning with the September, 2010 statement. I’ve run across lots of people online who are in the same boat I am–fighting an annual fee that was never supposed to happen. Some have been successful in getting the fee waived for at least the first year, others have not. I’ve been promised twice that the fee would be waived and a confirmation letter sent to me, but so far no letter has been received.

It’s my humble opinion that reeling in somewhere between one and two million customers by promising them no annual fee for life–and then charging them an annual fee–amounts to a bait-and-switch manuever, and my research online tells me that the bait-and-switch manuever is illegal in all 50 states.

Bill kept all the scans of the paperwork, here are pages from the marketing material (1 [3], 2 [4]) as well as the pre-approval letter [5].

This is tied to the story we broke last year about how you could avoid an annual fee if you made annual charges of at least $2,400 [6]. Bill now faces an annual $30 fee, if he keeps the card, when he should be facing nothing.

Personally, I think this story is funny. On one hand, you can’t expect the people running the card today, in 2010, to know that part of the marketing strategy in 1992 was to offer “no annual fee for life.” On the other, if you promise that you won’t charge an annual fee — ever, then you shouldn’t charge an annual fee — ever. Bill, and other cardholders, have a legitimate complaint because this aspect of the card was at the forefront of the marketing campaign.

It’s a little like saying that when you buy BMW, their much touted four-year, 50,000 of free maintenance actually runs out at three years, 37,500 miles. You can’t promise something, even if you foolishly promise it “for life,” and then take it away. Why not grandfather every existing cardholder and create a fee for the new applicants? Also, nothing prevents them from converting the AT&T card (basically “closing” the line of cards) to another card and then charging an annual fee on the new card to skirt the “no fee for life” promise…

What do you think?