As an account manager for credit card giant MBNA, Cate Colombo spent four years speaking to customers, answering questions about interest rates and waiving late fees.
Kathy Ellingwood did the same. She lasted only a year and a half before quitting this summer.
The women worked in different departments at the sprawling customer call center in Belfast, Maine, yet they share similar stories about aggressive selling tactics they claim they were told to use to push cash advances, sometimes getting customers to max out their credit cards.
"Every customer who calls in is a mark. It's a great big con," said Colombo, who estimates that she alone sold almost a quarter of a billion dollars in the four years she worked for MBNA before it was bought in 2005 by Bank of America.
Colombo and Ellingwood said that within seconds of a customer's call, they would have his or her entire credit history on screen, and they were trained what to say to sell people money. Ex-bank employees spill secrets »
"I would say 90 percent of the time, people were pragmatic. They would say, 'I don't need $100,000,' and we would find a way to convince them they needed the money," Ellingwood recalled.
She said they would look for trigger words like, "I'm in financial difficulty" or "I can't make my payments." Colombo said other triggers were, "I have to send my son to college. My car is not running. I'm moving."
Colombo said some people even asked about getting a $50,000 cash advance -- usually at zero percent interest -- for a down payment on a house. And although that's illegal, the former employees say they were trained to get around it by saying, "I cannot give you money to use as a down-payment on a home. However, what I can do is, I can deposit some money into your checking account, and once it's there, the funds are there, it's yours to do with what you please."
...Colombo and Ellingwood say they were told to sell hard to everyone. Once the customer agreed, they say, they would speed through intricate disclosure notices. Among the details, how a zero-percent or low interest rate could convert to as much as 28 percent if a payment was even a day late.
"You're basically looking at people who need the money most, who may not be able to afford it," Ellingwood said.
Colombo remembers having a conversation with one man in his 90s.
"He had all this available credit, maybe $100,000. I have my manager screaming, 'Colombo, you need to sell. You need to sell. You need to sell,' " she said.
That's the market in action folks.