Three years ago (though it seems longer), I made a decidedly public declaration that I was severing my 37-year association with the Bank of America (here’s the recap: Divorce (Bank of) America Style).
We closed our Bank of America checking and savings accounts, along with my account with Merrill Lynch, the bank’s investment subsidiary. When I did this, I discovered that my broker had invested in an inordinately large block of Bank of America stock (this was, I discovered later, not illegal). After my divestment, the ramifications of Bank of America’s purchase of Countrywide Mortgages, and its wobbly balance sheet, came to light and sliced its stock price in half. It turned out to be financially prudent to walk away.
Upon the advice of two trusted friends (neither of whom knew the other), we took our business to a local credit union. During this time, as you’ll remember, big banks and Wall Street were under fire for overleveraging on shaky mortgages. Credit unions were touted as intimate alternatives to the big bad banks – local institutions serving local depositors, which deserved our support if only, as Jimmy Stewart so eloquently put it in It’s A Wonderful Life, “so people wouldn’t have to crawl to Potter” (Potter being the despot running the local bank).
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
You can probably figure out where this is going. I’m back at Bank of America. In further interests of disclosure, I should say that it took my wife all of three weeks to walk away from the credit union, due to an inordinate amount of misinformation she got about her accounts. Apparently, I am much more patient with being given inaccurate or incorrect information than she is. Either that, or I’m just stupider. (The whole episode also calls into question the validity of the premise that friends’ recommendations have a higher correlation to satisfaction.)
The tipping point came a few months ago. It’s been a good year, business-wise, and I was splurging at Nordstrom. Trying to be financially prudent, I used my debit card instead of a credit card. As it happened, I was having lunch later that day not far from the main branch of my credit union, and I had checks to deposit. I went from Nordstrom to its ATM and found that my debit card had been deactivated.
I stormed inside to determine just what the heck was going on. One of the managers looked up my account and asked if I had been at Nordstrom that morning. I confirmed that I indeed had been, and she informed me that when criminals got their hands on stolen debit cards, their first move was usually to go to a place with high-end merchandise and liberal return policies. That’s why the card had been deactivated.
I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for them to call my cell, or to simply flag my account, rather than deactivating the debit card. What if I’d been at the Nordstrom in Seattle instead of at Stanford? The supreme irony was that my lunch appointment was with a friend who was in town auditing my credit union on behalf of the federal government. It took all my restraint not to reveal this to the bank manager. (During lunch, I received a phone call asking if I’d been at Nordstrom that morning, about 90 minutes after I’d left.)
It was all very disappointing. I had taken my business to a local credit union under the mistaken belief that a smaller institution would provide better service. The result, I discovered, was exactly the opposite. In order to offer a wide range of services and still keep fees low, this credit union outsourced almost everything. Its online software was as kludgy as anything I’d ever seen, even after a so-called upgrade, but it couldn’t change the software because it used a third-party service for bill payments. When I called on weekends to get information, the customer service representatives couldn’t help me because they worked for an outside entity that had limited access to my records. The reason it took 90 minutes for a call about my Nordstrom purchase? That activity was outsourced too.
The only service the credit union didn’t outsource was the one it should have. Our refinancing process dragged on for four months because the credit union had so few staffers, and one of them was on sick leave. (Of course, because I can’t stand the idea of going through another refinancing, we’ll keep our mortgage and home equity line at the credit union.)
The frustrations went on and on. If there was an advantage to being at a credit union, I couldn’t see it.
So I’m back at Bank of America. The fact is, it’s the closest bank to our house; it has branches and ATMs wherever we’re likely to travel; and the facet of it with which I interact the most – its online banking software – is impeccable. I still have to navigate its idiotic voice-recognition service when I call, as opposed to getting a human at the credit union, but the ultimate result of the conversation is far more productive.
I’m not happy to be supporting big-time corporate fraudulence, but I’ve discovered it’s preferable to small-time local incompetence.