Late last week, a few days before Christmas, my mom, Grandma Peggy to our family, was shopping for gifts for her far-flung children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins and old, dear friends. She knew it was a little last minute, but if she bought everything that day there was just enough time for everything to be shipped to arrive by Christmas Eve.
What she hadn’t counted on was that a bank was about to steal her Christmas cheer and blame terrorism.
She’d picked out a smoky Trappist cheese at Gethsemani Farms Monastery for Sister Jean, a nun retired from the Medical Mission Sisters who has been a lifelong friend. For Joanie, the cousin she grew up with, she had a box of Harry & David fruit in her cart. My brother was to receive filet mignons from Omaha Steaks.
Like a lot of older people nowadays, the internet is her lifeline. She gets her groceries delivered by FreshDirect, her laundry detergent from Soap.com, window treatments for her new apartment from Blinds.com. She gets her wine online at the Wine Library. It is no exaggeration to say the Internet is Grandma Peggy’s virtual assisted living facility, making it possible for her to stay independent.
The first problem she noticed was at the checkout page. Her payment wasn’t going through. She tried another site but her credit card was declined again. When she called the retailer’s 800 number, they were super helpful, but again, couldn’t get her payment to go through.
5 more days to Christmas. She was beginning to fear her plan to get everything shipped in time was not going to work. This credit card was her only credit card, and if she couldn’t use it, she was essentially stranded.
She called Bank of America, her credit card company, to find out what was going on. Could it be fraud?
She remembered someone calling her out of the blue a couple week before, saying he was from her bank and politely asking for her social security number to verify some missing information on her account. He was very nice about it. But Grandma Peggy was no dummy. She was wise to these phishing scams that prey on senior citizens and refused to share her personal information with the caller. Go Grandma!
When she reached Bank of America, they told her it wasn’t fraud. In fact her account had been closed. How could this be? She hadn’t closed it. Apparently, they said, your son closed the account. Grandma Peggy knew that could not be true. Neither of her sons knew anything about this credit card. She told them there must be a mistake and asked them to reopen it. This was her only credit card. She’d had it for more than 30 years.
And here is where Bank of America started to infuriate Grandma Peggy. They couldn’t reopen the account, they said. Once it is closed, it is closed. But they would be happy to have her apply for a new card. The Bank of America rep on the phone started asking Grandma Peggy for her personal financial information, such as annual income, sources of income, and so on.
Grandma Peggy wasn’t going to do that. Bank of America made a mistake. They should fix their mistake, not make her apply for a new credit card. If she had to apply for a new credit card, why would she go with a company that made such a gross mistake as shutting down her account with no notice?
12 Days of Christmas
At this point she called me and my brother. She called us to apologize — there was a problem with her credit card and she wasn’t going to be able to buy presents in time for them to reach us before Christmas. She sounded sad. Embarrassed. Like she’d let us down. It would just take a little longer, she told us, after she got a new credit card from a different bank.
I told her not to worry about it. My brother told her there were 12 days of Christmas, not just Christmas Day. My wife helped her switch her payment details at Fresh Direct so she could order food for the Christmas Eve dinner she is hosting tonight — and managed to get the last open delivery slot before the holiday.
On Sunday, when I visited Grandma Peggy, she explained to me she hadn’t been able to get the new credit card — it would take 7 to 10 business days. The local bank where she had her checking account — a competitor to Bank of America — had offered to get her the card on the spot if she could come to the bank in person, but she just wasn’t up to going.
At this point I started to wonder what exactly had happened with her account at Bank of America. She’d told me about that scam phone call, and I worried that perhaps someone had been trying to steal her identity. While she made me a cup of coffee I called the number on the back of her now-defunct credit card.
I was on the phone with Bank of America for nearly an hour, talking to several different phone reps. What I learned astounded me. It turns out, that mysterious phone call actually was from Bank of America.
I was told that some information, such as her social security number, had been missing from Grandma Peggy’s account and in order to comply with the Patriot Act, they had to get and verify that personal information. When she refused to provide that information over the phone, I was told, they had to close her account.
I was incredulous. On the front of the credit card, it says “Cardholder Since 1979.” How is it possible Bank of America wouldn’t have the information it needed to verify Grandma Peggy’s identity? Why would Bank of America call a customer out of the blue and ask for her social security number — the same exact Phishing Scam behavior banks warn their customers about, telling customers never to share personal information with people who call or email and claim to be from the bank? Why would Bank of America abruptly shut down a long-time customer’s account after one phone call? (Bank of America later claimed a letter had been sent about the missing information two months ago. Grandma Peggy did not receive any such letter.)
So, five days before Christmas, Bank of America shut down the only credit card of an 86-year-old grandmother who had been a customer for 35 years. Happy Holidays!
The woman I spoke to last at Bank of America that day was very nice and very understanding. It seemed obvious to me that Bank of America made a mistake, and when I asked her to reopen Grandma Peggy’s account, she apologized and told that only the Credit Department could do that. It was Sunday and the Credit Department was closed. But she gave me their phone number and I resolved to call them the next morning at 8 A.M. while on my way to work.
If we give you credit, the terrorists win
Long story short, the credit department would not reverse the decision to close the account. They insisted Grandma Peggy would have to re-apply, and get approved after they determined she was credit-worthy and could pay for her bills, just as though she were getting an entirely new credit card. The fact that she’d been a good customer, never missing a payment for 35 years counted for nothing.
And again, the credit department explained that her account had been closed to comply with the Patriot Act. So what exactly was the missing information they needed to verify in order to comply with the Patriot Act, I asked. Just a few things, I was told: her social security number, her place of birth and her citizenship status. If she had given that information to the man who called her on the phone a few weeks ago, none of this craziness would have ever happened, supposedly. He was calling to try to stop her account from being closed, I was told. He was trying to help. But when she refused to give him that information, Bank of America explained to me they had no choice. The Patriot Act made them do it.
Again, how is it possible Bank of America didn’t have this information? One of the bank’s reps told me that because the account was so old, it was possible that none of that information was required back when it was opened. I had to end the call with no resolution as I arrived at Penn Station and was going to lose phone service. Later that day, I shared some of this insane story on Twitter.
What Bank of America knew all along
That got Bank of America’s social media team’s attention. Kirk from Bank of America got in touch with me by phone after I DMed them my phone number. Guess how Kirk asked me to verify that I was really authorized to talk to them about my Mom’s account? He asked me for the last four digits of her social security number!
Somewhere deep in the bowels of Bank of America’s computer systems, they had a record of Grandma Peggy’s social security number after all. And the social media team was able to see the last four digits for verification. He also asked me for the last four digits of the credit card and the expiration date. I gave him all this information. It turned out he had the wrong expiration date in whatever record he was looking at, correct month, but wrong year, so he was possible seeing a record for an earlier version of the card.
So it seems likely that the information Bank of America claimed was missing was actually not missing at all. They should never have even called Grandma Peggy to try to verify whatever they needed for the Patriot Act (if in fact they did need it for that).
The information was on hand somewhere in the bank, which is tremendously ironic given that lack of good record keeping and information sharing was a primary reason we didn’t catch the terrorists before 9/11 — not that Americans failed to give up all their personal data to the powers that be.
I wished Kirk luck. I didn’t expect he’d be able to do anything. As far as I know, Kirk is still working on it.
Meantime, a supervisor called me back from Bank of America’s credit department this morning (as I had requested when we came to no resolution on Monday). But again, he wasn’t willing to reverse the decision and insisted the only thing Grandma Peggy could do was to apply and see if they would approve her for the line of credit she had had for years in good standing.
My mom is steadfast. She was not going to be so insulted. She is not interested in applying for a credit card with a company that has treated her so terribly shabbily, and who doesn’t know the appropriate way to communicate with customers and not appear like an identity thief. Who in their right minds would want to do business with a company that behaved this way? Who’s to say they won’t do something stupid like this again and defend themselves behind the Patriot Act and anti-terrorism laws?
When I was concluding the call with the Bank of America supervisor this morning, still at an impasse, I had to stop him at goodbye. I just could not listen to him wish me a happy holiday in the formulaic way every other person I talked to at the bank ended our calls. Bank of America doesn’t have the right to say that to me or Grandma Peggy anymore. Everything the bank did was contrary to making our holiday happy, and they are going to have to own that.
Grandma Peggy is getting a credit card from another bank. She says the other bank has been great and easy to work with. They know who she is and didn’t make her go through any long application process, didn’t leave her fearing she might not get approved, didn’t embarrass her. They’re trying to get her new card delivered to her ASAP. Grandma Peggy is back in the holiday mood, and back to her fierce independence.
In a few days, she’ll work through the bother of updating her payment info on all the sites she shops at and the subscriptions she has. We’re going to have a nice Christmas dinner with her tonight. I’ll play some of her favorite carols on the stereo. Her gifts will arrive sometime during the 12 Days of Christmas. And 2015 will be a great year.