Two HSBC units were hit with two federal class-action lawsuits last week claiming they’ve sold confusing credit-card “payment protection” plans to senior citizens, the unemployed and disabled residents in New Jersey and Pennsylvania who might not be eligible for the coverage plans.
The lawsuits against HSBC Bank USA and HSBC Card Services Inc., which is based in Illinois, were filed July 2 in U.S. district courts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and seek class-action status. The suits claim that HSBC, whose U.S. consumer finance unit is headquartered in Mettawa, marketed such “payment protection” products called “Personal Account Protection,” “Personal Account Protection Elite” and “Account Secure Plus” to credit-card customers.
HSBC declined to comment.
“Although HSBC’s Payment Protection is indistinguishable from a contract of credit insurance, Payment Protection is not marketed or sold as insurance,” the suits said. “HSBC does not register Payment Protection with” Pennsylvania or New Jersey insurance regulators, “thereby avoiding state regulation.”
Not only that, the lawsuits say, but HSBC sells the product in a “deceptive and misleading manner” through direct mail and telemarketing.
It represents Payment Protection as a service that suspends the required minimum monthly payment on a credit card and excuses the monthly interest for a limited period of time, preventing the account from becoming delinquent, the suits said. The marketing says, “In good times and bad, we’ve got you covered.”
But the Payment Protection plan is a “dense maze of limitations, exclusions and restrictions, making it impossible for customers to determine what Payment Protection covers and whether it’s a sound financial choice,” the suits say.
The lawsuits further allege that HSBC makes no effort to determine whether a subscriber is even eligible at the time of sale.
“As a consequence, the company bills thousands of retired persons, many of whom are senior citizens, along with the unemployed, self-employed, part-time or seasonal … residents, as well as disabled individuals, for payment protection coverage, even though their employment or health status prevents them from receiving benefits under the plan,” the suits said.
For example, “part-time or seasonal workers are limited or categorically excluded from receiving benefits,” the suits say. “To qualify for benefits, one needs to work at least 30 hours a week in employment to be considered permanent, however HSBC makes no effort to investigate” whether the consumers are part-time or seasonal.
HSBC knows that few of those subscribers will ever receive benefits and for those who do the premiums will exceed benefits, the suits said, noting that HSBC has increased profits by “many millions of dollars” through the Payment Protection sales.
The cost of Payment Protection is a monthly charge of $1.35 per $100 of a credit-card balance. For example, a credit-card customer with a $10,000 balance who has subscribed for Payment Protection owes HSBC $135 that month just for coverage.
The lead plaintiffs are Marilyn Rizera, a 54-year-old disabled resident of Magnolia, N.J., and Philadelphia residents Edward Esslinger, 63, who is also disabled; Gloria Glover, 68, who is retired and therefore allegedly excluded from receiving most or all of the benefits; and Ardath Rogers, 75, a part-time worker.
“Benefits are unavailable or limited for disabled persons,” the lawsuits say, adding that HSBC fails to ask if consumers are disabled. In some cases, “Payment Protection has been unilaterally imposed upon consumers,” the lawsuits say.
Telephone marketing scripts are “incomplete, indecipherable, misleading and obfuscatory,” the suits say. The lawsuits’ allegations include breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and unjust enrichment. Both lawsuits were filed by Golomb & Honik of Philadelphia, and the plaintiffs are seeking refunds of Payment Protection payments made to HSBC.