The “Too Big To Fail” Myth

The year 2011 has certainly started out interesting, with longstanding, repressive governments toppled in Tunisia and Egypt and calls for freedom from tyranny spreading across the Arab world. The courage and fortitude of those ordinary people is amazing and their success an inspiration to everyone in the world who is fights for what is right.

I can’t help but wonder what’s going through the minds of this country’s big bank execs when they watch the news from Libya, Egypt and other countries whose citizens are standing up against their repressive rulers. Do they gleefully see dollar signs, imagining new markets opening for U.S. goods and financial services? Or do they, perhaps, feel a little chill of foreboding?

You see, these men (yes, the heads of the big four are all male) have been living in the imaginary world of “too big to fail,” a mythical place where no matter what they do to their customers, they get to keep raking in billions for their corporations and putting millions in their own pockets. Aided and abetted by our political leaders, judiciary, law enforcement and regulatory agencies, they’ve been insulated in this bubble long enough that I think they’ve come to believe that both they personally and the institutions they manage are untouchable, beyond the reach of inconvenient ethical and moral concerns or even of the rule of law.

“Might is Right” might be their collective motto (along with “Mine, mine … all mine!”).

Too bad saying so doesn’t make it so, boys – as some men who have wielded far greater power for much longer have been finding out in recent weeks. Egypt’s President Mubarak had been in power since 1981and Tunisia’s President Ben Ali since 1987. They’re history now. The embattled Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has held his post for 32 years. And Libya’s Gadhafi, who as of this writing is presumed to have fled his country as his military and tribal allies desert him in the wake of public outcry, has ruled for more than 40 years.

Compared to those heavy-hitters, let’s consider the leaders of the big four U.S. banks:

  • Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan has only been at the helm since the end of 2009.
  • Citibank’s Indian-born leader Vikram Pandit took over that company in 2007.
  • Wells Fargo’s top executive, John Stumpf, was named president/CEO in August 2005.
  • Chase’s Jamie Dimon, the longest-serving top executive in the group, has been in his post only since mid-2004.

Too rich, too ruthless, too corrupt, too well-supported by the U.S. goverment to be shown the door, gracefully or otherwise? I don’t think so. These are the guys who have decided it’s okay to fake foreclosure documents to steal people’s homes, jack up credit-card interest and service fees for no reason and generally treat us, the customers, like they own us. But we don’t have to take it.

The reality is, we the people of the United States could put the big four banks out of business by noon tomorrow. Pretty easily. With none of the risk faced by the people of Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Yemen.

How? Just go to the nearest branch of your “too big to fail” bank tomorrow morning and close your account. Take your money to a local or regional bank or credit union. You’ll get all the same services – a free checking account, a savings account, credit cards, debit cards, auto and home loans and more – with fewer and lower fees. And, you’ll keep your money at work in your own community. What a simple way to fight for right.

And good wishes to the people of Bahrain, Yemen and Libya as they seek regime change and the people of Tunisia and Egypt as they plan new futures for their countries.

Blame the Banks for Trashed Houses

Years ago when I was looking for an inexpensive rental house, I got marched through a number of beat-up foreclosure and rental-eviction homes by property management agents. I ascribed the damage I saw – missing appliances, holes in walls, ripped-out fixtures – to a juvenile tantrum on the part of the former owners/tenants. I really couldn’t understand what would possess people to create such a mess.

After nearly a year trying to find a grown-up, ethical, professional human being to deal with at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage regarding my mortgage loan, I now understand. Completely.

First, the ridiculous stalling tactics employed by all the major mortgage servicers are enough to make you scream and throw heavy objects. Having to tell your entire life story to clueless customer-service rep after clueless customer-service rep. could certainly inspire a head-wall moment. So, too, being asked to send yet another copy of the paperwork you’ve already sent multiple times. I mean, do they really think the numbers on last year’s tax return are going to change?

So, I suggest that the holes in the wall in this picture were caused over time by a frustrated homeowner beating her head against the wall during and after telephone conversations with her loan servicer. You know, when you’ve been on mold in the phone queue for ages waiting to be told that that you just need to send one more form.

Or when you try to get hold of a person who has signed correspondence you need clarified and the customer-service reps. pretend that the huge corporation they work for is either too backward, too poor or too stupid to have any kind of company directory that lists employees’ names and contact info.

Or when you get passed along to the eighth or ninth in the long line of company employees who will “be your point of contact until the review is finished?” Maybe the holes got beat into the wall when the homeowner tried to get a straight answer to a simple question: How long will the review take? What programs is my loan being reviewed for? Whom can I call to get an answer to a simple question?

The irrational-appearing damage make perfect sense to me now. I mean, I’m sure it’s tempting to beat your head against your desk or dining room table – wherever you have set up your personal “incident command center” to manage your years-long loan modification review/foreclosure fight. But, let’s face it, after the bank steals your house and boots you out, you’re going to take your furniture along with you. And who wants to be looking at a bunch of forehead-sized dents forever? Better not to be reminded that your government, all the financial regulators and much of the nation’s judiciary stood back and let one of those too-big-to-be-charged-with-fraud banks totally screw you.

Nope, it’s much better to leave the evidence of your pain and frustration behind when you go. Keep your possessions undamaged and walk out with that bandaged head held high (and go straight to your medical professional to get checked for a concussion.)

And for those of you who are shopping for a foreclosure bargain, when you see a house with walls full of holes you’ll know the former owner fought hard against his or her loan servicer’s deceit and greed. You’ll likely end up with one of those same loan servicers, so consider yourself forewarned about their business practices and the quality of their commitment to their customers. After you patch the holes, you might want to go out and buy yourself a helmet.

I Say “No” to Corporate Fraud at Any Price

Going on 11 months now of fighting with Wells Fargo for a mortgage modification and I have sure learned a whole lot. And most of it does not reflect well on the Obama administration,  Congress, the justice system or corporate America.

I realize quite a few people who know me wonder why in the world I’m still beating my head against this wall of greed and lies. At first it was because I was afraid about losing my home. Not so much anymore. I have accepted the fact that the bank execs and their cronies have so thoroughly stacked the decks against the average homeowner that I will probably become one of the estimated 13 million Americans who will lose our houses in this debacle.

So, if I have no hope of keeping my home, why am I still blogging, updating my website and telling everyone who will listen the truth about what is happening in this country? Simple. Because what the banks are doing is wrong. And if everyone who is experiencing the the lies and ridiculous misdirection and outright fraud just rolls over and lets it happen, this government-sanctioned corporate assault on the citizens of this country will go on and on and it will get worse.

Also, because I’m just downright stubborn. One of my friends who is great for my morale on those days when I’m tired and sick of the hypocrisy and evil corporate policy disguised as fake ineptness keeps saying things like “that bank has no idea who they’re messing with.” Because she has seen my sheer bloody cussedness in action and she has listened to the story about my first experience tilting at corporate windmills.

I’m the crazy woman who fought with a now-defunct Denver department store, May D&F, for three years over $10.60. That was back in the mid-80s when I was a recent college grad doing what we were told to back then to establish credit – get a credit card, make one purchase and pay it off right away. That was the beginning of the era when banks were practically throwing themselves at the feet of college students trying to get them hooked on buying things they couldn’t afford on credit, so a student could sign up for and get as many cards as she wanted. I got one for this upscale department store, where I purchased a bottle of Lauren perfume for $10.60. I paid the bill as soon as I got it and filed away the credit card, which I never used again. Simple. Except, when I got a second bill for the same item.

Now, this was back in the days when banks mailed you your canceled checks along with your statement each month. So, I pulled out the check showing clearly that I had paid the credit card bill, made a photocopy, typed (yes, on an electric typewriter) a properly formatted and worded business letter to whom it may concern and sent in proof that I did not, indeed, owe May D&F $10.60. If it were just a billing mistake, this would surely have been enough to get it corrected. But, then, I got another bill for $10.60. I sent another copy of the check with another politely worded letter.

This went on for three years, with their letters eventually threatening to refer me to collections and my replies getting ever more business-communication-101 scathing. I even called the company several times. Still, several times a year with no rhyme or reason to the timing, I would get another bill from May D&F for $10.60. Finally I got an accounts receivable manager on the phone one day and she had me send a copy of my canceled check directly to her. I never heard from May D&F again. I never spent another dime there, either. And I have probably told my story a couple hundred times over the years. Including right here, to all of you. (The May Co., the store’s parent company, disappeared into a bunch of mergers that ended with the company being swallowed up by Macy’s sometime in 2005. I don’t shop there, either.)

In yoga class, the instructor has us draw a "self help card" as a focus for our practice some days. I recently drew a doozy, the "Courage" card. This is the image I'd like to project to Wells Fargo, especially those women in the president's office who keep lying to the Arizona attorney general's investigator saying I didn't send this and I didn't do that. Kathleen, Wanita and Angela, for you I am a fierce nordic warrior woman with a big knife. Now, bring it!

Over the three years I battled with May D&F, it became painfully clear this was no simple billing mistake. It was, I believe, an established-but-no-doubt-secret corporate policy to bill customers multiple times for small amounts in the hopes they wouldn’t notice they had already paid. It was a pretty common practice in the ’80s and I believe a few companies actually got hauled into court for it. They must have made billions bilking their customers like this.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to have just paid another $10.60 instead of banging out all those letters on my trusty typewriter? Sure. But what they were doing was not right. If everyone who got double billed like that had called the companies on it and refused to pay, they wouldn’t have kept doing it. I felt like if I let them do it to me, I was saying it was okay for them to do it to everyone else, too.

And it is not okay. Not any more okay than what Wells Fargo Home Mortgage is doing to me and thousands of other customers, jerking us around with “lost” paperwork, endless phone queues and made-up processing “rules”  instead of behaving like ethical, professional grown-ups and performing timely, honest and accurate reviews of our home loans and providing appropriate modifications to those who qualify.

That’s why I fight. Wells Fargo and Freddie Mac will probably take my home. But I will not go quietly. I fought for three years over a measly $10.60 and the principle involved. They had better know I’ll fight a whole lot longer and harder for a house and to say “NO WAY” to mortgage modification fraud and foreclosure fraud.

Who’s Going to Protect AZ From the Banksters Now?

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, Arizona residents fighting to keep their homes can pretend Terry Goddard is still our Attorney General. We can bask in the certainty that our state’s top law enforecement official actually cares about bank-perpetrated fraud in both foreclosures and mortgage modifications.

Goddard, who was tragically defeated in his bid to unseat our sorry excuse for a governor, was a force to be reckoned with when it came to this issue. He was on the executive committee of the National Association of Attorneys General and part of the 50-state investigation into foreclosure fraud related to document “robosigning.”

In December, just before he left office, Goddard filed a lawsuit against Bank of America triggered by hundreds of consumer complaints and resulting from a year-long investigation into Bank of America’s residential mortgage servicing practices, particularly its loan modification and foreclosure practices.

Unfortunately, despite the “evidence” of the cached web page, Goddard is gone. The new guy seems to be focused on harassing a bunch of high school students and teachers in Tucson for daring to learn about ethnic differences in our society.

Yep, that’s the only thing on his website’s “Issues” page.

Per his campaign promises, he’s also vehemently defending what I have come to think of as the “bigots’ law” – SB 1070.  And, apparently, pursing with great zeal a nonsensical fight to make health care harder to get, even more expensive and generally less available to the residents of his state.

I’m fairly certain there are a whole bunch of other problems to be solved in this state just now, and up to several of them could use a little attention from the top legal official. Too bad the foreclosure crisis doesn’t seem to be on his radar screen. In fact, there is speculation that he’ll withdraw the state from that lawsuit against Bank of America.

Maybe if the bank executives had dark hair, dark eyes and darker-than-beachfront-vacation-tanned skin? Maybe that would draw the ire of our new chief legal officer. Hmmm … wonder what it would take to convince Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf to color his hair black and get a spray-on tan?