Welcome to Liberrants, a blog dedicated to editorials, discussions, and studies of all things libertarian. Don't let the title mislead you; it's merely my attempt to be creative in describing myself as a "hopeful curmudgeon" who embraces the goal of the free, peaceful, economically vibrant society envisioned by America's founding fathers. Jump in! Contribute! Enjoy!

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Location: Tucson, Arizona, United States

A critically thinking curmudgeon whose goal, in addition to creatively venting about the imperfect world in which we live, is to induce critical thinking in others. The ultimate goal is to help bring about a peaceful world in which we can all live in freedom.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

These People Scare Me . . .

It’s been a bizarre weekend, one that has worn me out like few others in recent memory have. I had other things planned, but an unfortunate and perfectly avoidable incident changed everything. Rather than write about something inspiring or constructive, I now feel compelled to rant about a major finance/mortgage company that has put us through hell over the past 96 hours, and needlessly so. It would be hilarious if not so infuriating.

Like most people living in the twenty-first century western world we pay almost all of our monthly bills, including our mortgage, online. Not a complicated process to set up, or at least it shouldn’t be, particularly for the recipient, in this case a Fortune 100 financial services firm. Well, this mortgage company who shall remain nameless (but whose initials are GMAC Mortgage) has demonstrated to us twice in the last six months that it doesn’t know how to take money from customers, especially if said money is paid digitally through a third party with whom the unnamed mortgage company has a teaming agreement.

Here’s where things got scary. Six months ago my wife noticed at the beginning of the month that we didn’t receive an e-bill from the nameless mortgage company (henceforth referred to as “NMC”). Being the curious sort when it comes to things financial, she called said NMC to find out what the problem was. Bear in mind that we had been paying said NMC electronically for nearly three years without noticeable incident. But on this particular occasion a NMC customer service [sic] representative grew inexplicably irate with my wife when she complained about the absence of an e-bill, even going so far as to make the sardonic comment to the effect that we were “crazy” to trust a third party with our payment transfers. Apparently this benighted individual’s exposure to cybertechnology was limited to seeing the computer HAL in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey some four decades ago.

Expressing understandable bewilderment at this statement, my wife asked why the abrupt change of policy. After getting an answer to the effect of “because the moon isn’t made of green cheese and it’s raining outside today,” my wife, who herself works as a financial services customer care liaison, realized that she’d suffered a “moron collision” that wasn’t going to get resolved at the call center level. To shorten a long story somewhat, she wound up having to go all the way up to the Assistant VP for Customer Relations to get an acknowledgement that not only does the NMC accept electronic payments, but does so routinely through the company we had been using for the last three years, with which said NMC has (drum roll here) a teaming agreement!

End of story.

Yeah, right. The other night we all got in late from work and decided to order some Chinese carryout. Imagine my expression of unpleasant surprise when the Cantonese-accented voice on the other end of the line said that my debit card was declined. I think this was akin to being told that my mother-in-law had gone for an entire month without begging for money from her relatives – it had never happened before. After generously furnishing her debit card to pay for our supper, the wife immediately went online to our joint bank account to investigate (she normally checks this account at least once a day, making her concern at the situation all the more acute). Lo and behold, our checking account was overdrawn. After a brief investigation we found out why.

NMC, it seems, sent out the e-bill for the monthly payment considerably later than usual. My wife, fearing that said company would not get paid on time, set up an e-payment for immediate dispersal. Unbeknownst to her (and me, had I been I the same situation), NMC interpreted this as authorization to draw an extra payment for the next month, thus resulting in a double withdrawal from the checking account. It soon became apparent that checks to various creditors, set up on autopayments for mid-month, would be bouncing like red rubber balls. Red Alert, Mr. Spock!

A call to NMC customer service revealed that, well yes, the double payment was exactly what had occurred. Our first question: Can you electronically refund the overpayment? NMC’s response: Well, er, um, no, see, we can’t do that ‘cause we’re, well, um, not authorized or equipped to do that. Our next question: Well, since you’re obviously technology-challenged, can you FEDEX/UPS us a cashier’s check for the amount of overpayment? NMC: Yes, we can do that within 24 to 48 hours.

Whew! I guess that’s settled.

Again, dream on. The next day (Thursday, I believe) the wife again called NMC’s customer service center to inquire about the status of the FEDEX’d refund check. Had it been sent? If so, when, and what is the tracking number? NMC’s first response: Er, um, let me transfer you to someone who can answer your question (my next question would have been: And your purpose is, what, to provide carbon dioxide for the call center’s potted plants?). After a muzakal interlude of about five minutes, another epsilon simi-moron picks up and asks what the trouble is. After my wife recaps the situation for at least the fifth time said ESM claims that, oh no, our check hadn’t been FEDEX’d at all, but express mailed and that we could expect it in five to ten working days. "Five to ten working days?" Great, how many checks will bounce by that time?

But wait, it gets better.

After asking if a) the previous ESM call center rep had recorded the transaction promised the previous night (we knew the answer to that question) and b) payment on said check could be stopped and another issued and FEDEX/UPS expressed (we told them to add the cost of this to our next monthly mortgage statement if necessary), the NCM ESM stated that “that [isn’t] company policy” and rambled something about schedules and SOPs and why the weather wasn’t sunny outside. After listening to about five minutes of this nonsense, my wife had had enough and told the NMC ESM that this was the second time in less than a year that she had contacted them for issue resolution and that they had failed both times. The ESM wasn’t the least bit apologetic and told us, in not so many words, that we could go take a flying hike.

Our next decision was one that neither of us wanted to make, that being to take a cash advance from our credit card to temporarily cover the amount of outstanding checks. Because our credit union is located in Maryland and cash advances on credit cards are about the only transaction that couldn’t be done online through this institution, this meant an hour’s drive up and back to resolve the issue. But we were in for a real surprise on Friday afternoon.

As I came home Friday afternoon, I decided on a lark to open our front door (which we rarely ever use) just to see what might have been left on the front step. What should my tired eyes spy but a FEDEX envelope from NMC! What should this contain but a cashier’s check in the amount of one month’s mortgage payment, memo line stamped with REFUND. I was simultaneously both elated and furious.

You’re probably beyond the point of asking “your point in all this rambling is?” Well, my point is that this is just one more example of American businesses showing their complete contempt for the customers they exist to serve. I have an especially poisonous place in my heart for mortgage companies, who realize that since the only way for a customer to get out from under their abominable service is to go through the cost, time and inconvenience of refinancing their home, they can pretty much behave like a government agency and treat the customer any way they feel like treating them.

I call these companies “conditional monopolies” and define them as being oligopolies that, while certainly not monopolies in the legitimate sense of the word, offer services and terms of service so convoluted and cumbersome that the user is for all practical purposes irreversably locked into them for fixed periods of time and that it is practically impossible to simply break free of them and shop for a better deal. Like insurance and telecommunications firms, to name just two prominent examples, their products and services are indistinguishable from one another, right down to the nasty and incompetent service they provide and hidden costs they impose on a whim with barely the flimsiest of justifications.

The libertarian devil’s advocate might respond with “Okay, so go out and refinance.” But at what interest rate? Certainly it would be higher than the rate I’m locked into and there would be no guarantee of better service from the new mortgage holder. All factors considered, the cost of refinancing would outweigh the benefits. In other words, doing business with another conditional monopoly in this situation wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem.

What infuriates me the most is the aggravation and time and opportunity costs associated with this snafu. If I thought that I had any chance of remuneration from NMC over this issue, even in the form of an apology, I wouldn’t be quite so irate. As it is I realize that it’s just one more example of the economic decay engulfing this country ever more steadily. As a partial solution to the problem we’ve decided to stop sending NMC money electronically; in fact, I’m going to wait until the tenth of each month to send them their monthly payment via “snail mail,” making sure that they get it right at the end of the grace period. Let them wonder why the people who used to pay early are now paying at the last minute (but not late). It's more symbolic than anything else, but I’m curious to see if the change will be noticed.

In the ideal marketplace we reward bad service by taking our business elsewhere. With a conditional monopoly that’s really not a practical option. We’ll see what happens from here on out. I’m already formulating an accelerated payment plan to get out from under these people within the next decade. Don't reward bad business if you don't have to, and save money in the process!