Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Banks: Tiny Cuts

I've just had a most intense and unpleasant conversation with an employee in the collection department of US Bank. I want to write down some of what just happened and try to capture the relevant facts in order to be able to write a letter to the bank, explaining my position.

What happened was this. I received a bill from US bank last September or October for $44.19 as the final payment for our 2002 Miata, which we traded in for the 08 in August.

Ok, fine, I did see that there was one last little payment to be made to clear up the paperwork, but I didn't get around to paying it till January because, quite honestly, car payments aren't in my usual 'roll' of monthly electronic payments. I had to write a check and mail it in. This I did in January. The man with whom I had the dispute this morning, 'Dan', even confirmed this. He told me that the bank had received it on the 8th of January. Well, of course, he had to tell me this because his point was that the bank had received the check but had 'Returned' it to 'Maker'. Hmmm. I am getting ahead of myself here a bit.

Today I got a call from my man Dan in the collections department at US Bank. Though I missed the call, I called him right back. He knew who I was, amazingly, and quickly explained to me that the reason he'd called was to inform me I now owed the bank at total $64.19 because my check for $44.19 had been marked 'Return to Maker' on or after the 8th. As a result, he told me, I had been assessed a $20 fine or 'processing charge'.

Now, interestingly, I received a statement from US Bank in January, which showed a total due of 64.19 and itemizing the $20 as processing fee, I think. There was, however, no explanation as to what that was for and why it was being assessed, as in, why my check was being 'Returned To Maker'. So, looking at the statement, I guessed that they hadn't received my check (or processed it) in time for the statement to be printed, thus the still-due $44.19 plus $20. I figured that I would get another statement with the $44.19 deducted and that if the $20 continued to show up as due, I'd either call the bank and dispute the $20 because it was in fact paid on time, or just call it quits and send them $20. Nonetheless, there was no clear explanation on the statement ha there had been a problem with my check.

Enter Dan. I told him this, but no, he thinks he's got a deadbeat here. As far as he's concerned, the 'Return To Maker' on my record is the same as 'NSF' or "Not Sufficient Funds' and that equals 'Deadbeat' in his (presumably rather small) book. Never mind that the marker 'RTM' was in fact issued by his institution, US Bank, for reasons not made clear, either to me or Dan, and that I was not aware, until the phone call, that there had even been a problem with my check!

Now, often it takes several weeks to process paper these days, so it didn't surprise me to *not* see it on my statement online (which I check regularly, as in, daily). However, to this guy, Dan, there was simply no possibility that the amount could be in dispute. I explained that I didn't actually dispute owing the $44.19. In fact, I pointed out, I had tried to pay it. But, I said, I did (and still do) actually dispute whether or not I in fact owe US bank $20 for what seems very likely to me to be their mistake, not mine.

This I posited to Dan. I asked if he thought that it was possible that US Bank had erred in marking my check 'RTM'. This, he admitted, was possible. If this was so, I concluded, it was then also possible that I wouldn't actually owe the $20. He said yes, it was possible that I might not owe the $20. But, he reasoned, I still had to pay the full 64.19 immediately because, technically, this disagreement we were having didn't amount to a 'dispute'. I thought this was interesting, especially because we were just about to have our real dispute. No, he contended obstinately, I needed to pay it all now and, if the bank had indeed made a mistake, they would reimburse me, possibly with a small ($5) remuneration by way of apology. Oh the irony! His or mine though, I don't know for sure.

At this point, he offered to basically split the difference with me. He said that if I'd pay with a credit/debit card over the phone right then, he could and would use his 'power' to waive the $20 late fee, or processing fee or whatever we were calling it by this time. However, he said he'd still have to charge me $10 for making the payment on the phone. Now, to be fair, to his way of thinking, this was half what I 'owed', but to me it was still $10 more than I owe.

Ok, I said, I'll pay on the phone, but I won't pay the phone processing charge. Why, I asked, should I pay for the $10 of paying my bill on the phone, when I really hadn't intended to pay on the phone (expressly to avoid paying the fee associated with that form of payment) in the first place. Further, I wouldn't even need to be doing it now, except for the fact that I'd actually called him back (on my dime) and was for still unknown reasons, patiently trying to resolve the issue by promising to pay. I was firm, though, that I'd only pay for what I knew I owed. I stood firm on disputing the portion that I did not believe I owed the bank.

This, I think, caused his head to explode. It really set him off. He asked if I thought that this was a 'dictatorship'. In a somewhat parental tone, he proceeded to tell me that he was the one who was telling me what to do, not the other way around. He further told me, in an equally stern voice, that he was not prepared to offer me anything other than 1) the chance to pay now or 2) have him make a 'note that the customer will not pay'. I had to tell him he should actually not 'note' that because it wasn't true; I repeated that I was willing to pay the original amount due but not the fine.

His tone became increasing ruder as he attempted and failed to bully me into making payment. Immediately. Next, essentially, he tried to blackmail me by telling me that unless I paid right then, at that moment, on the phone, nothing less than the $54.19 that he was demanding, he would report to the bank that I was actually refusing to pay.

At this point, feeling that threats of this nature aren't sanctioned behavior and that I should report it, I asked to speak to his supervisor. Conveniently, Dan told me that said supervisor 'was not available'. Since it now seemed to me that that speaking to someone else wasn't going to be an option, I asked him if the conversation was being recorded. This was a bit of a bluff, of course, but at least since they threaten you with this at the beginning of every call (I suspect to deter people from cursing at the collection reps) and I'd been unfailingly polite throughout the conversation, I thought it might be to my advantage. To this query, he sounded surprised and asked why I asked. I said that I at least hoped someone would listen to it and see that he was being rude, uncooperative, and unnecessarily so, especially because I was actually explicitly offering to pay the original amount due.

Our dispute, of course, is not about that amount, but the other charges that I feel are being unfairly assessed, however they are labeled. Curiously, since I waste a lot more than $20 every week on frivolities, I find myself engaged in this disagreement for no reason other than the mere principle. This to me is a sort of quixotic quest I often find myself embroiled in. It happens to me whenever some large company demands a very small amount of money from me for reasons that have nothing do do with the service or goods the company actually provided and everything to do with the institution trying to assert its power over an individual. But why?

Indeed, what gain is in it for the big company? Punishment? Deterrence? No, I think it is simple greed, at a corporate policy level. It's not an individual's greed--certainly not Dan's, who shouldn't even care whether or not I actually send in $44.19 or $54.19. I mean, what's it to him?

The answer is, naturally, 'nothing' really. But, I maintain that, it is a matter of corporate policy/culture, which is what Dan is blindly following and was trying so desperately to adhere to in his conversation with me, I think for no other reason than his desire to keep his job.

On the larger scale, here's what I think is happening. The institution has it set up as a matter of corporate policy so that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of 'customers' are subjected to a million or even a billion 'tiny cuts' or fees, processing charges, late fees, and fines. These tiny cuts are really a hemmorage, adding up to untold billions of dollars in 'slush money'. And this practice is very hard to detect because is not as discrete or even as obvious as the outrageous ATM fees we are being charged every day just to see or use or own money, and nobody seems to be complaining about $3.50 ATM fees that meet the legal definition of usery.

Yes, the fight is indeed quixotic, but I can't help it. Some foolish clerk like Dan gets it in his head that he can be righteously indignant with me on the part of his company because he 'knows' that I am 'deadbeat' because of the 'evidence' he has in front of him and off I go! Again, never mind that it's all manufactured by the company (including his very 'collections agent' job) as a revenue stream that goes directly to the bottom line. And that's a best-case scenario. I am being generous, though for no good reason I can see.

In any case, I told him I was going to pay, by check, tomorrow. I told him further that I would include with it a letter explaining my position and outlining my complaints not just against US Bank for mishandling this whole process, but specifically to the individual who was so unnecessarily uncooperative and rude in his attempt to collect the money. Dan wasn't having this. Finally, after reiterating his intent to 'note' that I was 'refusing to pay', he told me I could leave a message on his supervisor's voice mail. This I did, in a clear and calm voice, and left my number for him/her to call me back. I do not expect a call.

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