Bank of America – Taking Advantage of Youth – Is that Ethical?

November 6, 2008

As my fingers rest on the keys of this keyboard, I have heard from colleagues that I should avoid writing on this subject – as Bank of America – might elect to be a client and wouldn’t appreciate negative publicity. My question back to them was – as an ethics speaker and author – don’t I have a responsibility to speak the truth?

“Yes” was their reply “but at what peril?”bank-of-america-logo

So…being honest I have debated for days whether to write or not. In the end…I have elected to as I feel that ethical choices – at times – may mean less money or less business – but in the end – doing the right thing will always pay off. If I am to discuss someone else’s ethics, I must stand behind mine.

THE STORY: My son, Alex, received his “check card” and bank account from deal ole dad (that would be me) sometime after he was 16 years old. Weekly I would place his allowance on it and tried to help him understand how to responsibly use this first intro into banking.

He kinda got the idea – in that he knew if he presented his card that if there were no funds it would not be accepted. Likewise, he knew that he could take the card to the ATM and check the balance anywhere. Simple – so he thought.

Quick Reality Check: What the bank shows as an available balance isn’t always THE available balance. You would think in this modern day of instant transactions that once you use the card the amount used would “immediately” be subtracted from your account. Most of us adults know – NOT SO. Young people don’t get that. Let me repeat – YOUNG PEOPLE DON’T GET THAT! They think that if you send a text (for example) and it arrives within seconds – then when you use your card the money is withdrawn in the same time. In their minds why would it not be?

Back to the story – So as Alex nears the end of his 17th year he overdraws his account. Seems that he didn’t know the balance in his account when he drove into the convenience store one weekend. He pumped gas and paid with his checkcard. A little later that day, he went to the Bank of America ATM and checked his balance. All seemed well. So he went to the movie, purchased some popcorn and a drink, later purchased a sandwich from Subway and got some gum from the convenience store. All purchases were made with his checkcard – against a balance he thought he had – afterall, the ATM told him his balance “after” he pumped his gas.

Adult readers know exactly where this is going. The gas purchase had not yet been removed from his account as it was done over the weekend…and all the other purchases exceeded the balance in his account. HE WAS OVERDRAWN.

Is that the ethical issue – Not a chance – that’s life. And at times life comes at you hard. For Alex the very real realization was that for each overdraft he owed $35. Yes – my son – you owe $35 for purchasing a $1.29 pack of gum. “That’s not right dad,” I remember him telling me. To which I replied, “Then take it up with the bank…you got yourself into this you can pay yourself out.”

HELP WITH AN INTERESTING TWIST: Up to this point the issue is my son screwed up. But, true to my suggestion he went to his local Bank of America branch to seek help. Oh, by this point he had turned 18.

He met with the Assistant Manager and told her his plight. She was kind in helping him (so it seemed) and “split the difference” on the overdraft charges – she forgave some and he paid the rest – then she suggested that he apply for a “STUDENT CREDIT CARD.” She told him that the credit card would provide him overdraft protection and keep him from having problems like he just had.

What do you think he did? He SIGNED UP! No questions asked…it just seemed like a good idea and (not knowing any better) he took her trusted advice. She did tell him that he would need to link it to his account when he got it. Reality check: Link it to an account when you’ve never had a card before doesn’t connect. That’s like telling a guy in his 20’s you need to have your PSA checked. They’ll look at you and say O.K., but not know what a PSA test is!

Reality Check: Likewise, she never told him that the suggestion she was offering was not “free.” Turns out that if the card is linked to the account it will advance funds to cover an overdraft (that’s what he was told). What he was not told was that there is a COST involved. Seems that Bank of America charges $10.00 per overdraft transfer. Hum…so let me get this straight – the $1.29 pack of gum which cost him $36.29 would now cost him $11.29. Great deal huh?

Back to the story… The card came in and he did exactly what he thought she told him to do. It said on the card – call this number to ACTIVATE your card. Well since it had been a week or so since he had been in the bank – he assumed that the instructions on the card were what she was talking about and so he did what he was told to do (or so he thought) and he activated the card.

BIG PROBLEM NOW: A month of so passes – no problems – then in July ’08 he overdrew his account again – and again it was the weekend nightmare. Minor purchases were made – 10 in fact – that each were overdrawn from his checkcard. POINT OF INTEREST: For any readers, if your children have checkcards – do they maintain a check register? My guess is NO! Most of them have never written a check in their lives and don’t connect with the “write it down and keep the balance” mentality of adults. The rest of this story – YOU GOT IT – HE WAS CHARGED $350.00 in overdraft fees.

He was devastated and I was furious. He went back to Bank of America and once again talked with the same Assist Manager who encouraged him to get the credit card (without full disclosure – that begs and ethical question). She told him that he was to “link” it. He thought by “activating it” he had. No…per this Assistant Manager it was his fault. There was nothing she could do to help him. Well, she could transfer the OVERDRAFT charges to his credit card and clear his checking account.

Faced with no acceptable option he elected to have the fees transferred over to his credit card. NOW LET ME GET THIS IN MY HEAD. A bank officer with Bank of America suggests a kid get a credit card to help with overdrafts. She doesn’t follow up to link the account of have it automatically link, she assumes that kids who have ZERO experience will know what to do. She doesn’t tell him that there are continued charges if he does overdraft. Oh, and she suggests the transfer of $350 of fees (profits to Bank of America) into a credit card where they will get MORE FEES. Sorry, but that just seems irresponsible, greedy and UNETHICAL.

THE REST OF THE STORY: It’s early October ’08 and my son is now in college. He and I visit another Bank of America branch seeking help for this situation. We met with another Assistant Manager who appeared to want to help. We shared the story and she was appalled. She said that anytime she suggested that a kid get a card – she would follow up to make sure the card was linked. That made sense to me.

With a Masters in Accounting – I understood the numbers. While I didn’t like the fact that my son was maneuvered into a credit card that still cost him should he overdraft his account, I accepted that fact.

So what would be a fair outcome? I suggested that if the card had been linked properly in the first place he would have been charged $10 for each overdraft incident or $100.00. He was charged instead $350.00. It would seem the fair, just and ethical response would be a $250.00 credit on his card. SIMPLE.

Nope…not so…you see there’s profit involved and which branch would “suck up” that loss? The branch in his college town called the branch in his home town. One Assistant Manager talked to the other Assistant Manager. At least the one in his home town told the truth – the facts are as I’ve stated. But she was unwilling to take the charge – afterall it would be charged against her branch. (And apparently Bank of American needs all the money it can earn from what ever source including unsuspecting young people). Of course, the Assistant Manager in his college town…well, she was sympathetic but unwilling to take the charge either – afterall she or her branch didn’t create the problem.

QUESTIONS: Does a bank have a responsibility to fully disclose all charges and possible pitfalls when suggesting to young people that they subscribe to a product of theirs?

Is it right to suggest to a young person that they should obtain a credit card for a specific purpose without first disclosing that there are fees for the application of that purpose?

Is Bank of America so motivated by profit at the branch level that they would elect to look past the obvious ethical choice in order to keep $250.00 profit from an 18 year old who knew no better?

Perhaps the last question: Am I the one off base here?

Oh…per the Bank of America Web Site related to their Code of Business Ethics the following is stated: The code, in effect, explains what we mean when we say one of our core values is “doing the right thing.” Somehow I can’t think that charging unsuspecting newly turned 18 year olds is “the right thing” – but perhaps I am off base?

Your comments are encouraged and welcome!

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Business Ethics Alive in Small Banks – Strong Ethics Equal Healthy Banks

October 18, 2008

It’s easy to become cynical when all you hear in the media is bad news.  But not all news is bad.  In a recent CNN article there was some refreshing comments from small, but healthy, banks.  They were making loans and, for the most part, it was business as usual.

Here are some comments from the article:

Conservative lending practices seem to be a common denominator among banks that have remained strong and stable during the current banking crisis, and those banks are still making loans.

Peoples Bank President Todd McKee, left, chats with customer Tommy McVay on Friday in Lubbock, Texas.

Peoples Bank President Todd McKee, left, chats with customer Tommy McVay on Friday in Lubbock, Texas.

The failures of behemoths such as Washington Mutual and IndyMac have drawn media attention, but not all big banks are in trouble — and smaller banks are not immune.

For sometime, as a business ethics speaker, I have said that the underlying problem related to the economic crisis we’re facing today has been founded in a lack of business ethics.  For those comments I have been the brunt of criticism.  But, if ETHICS is choosing good from bad with a moral obligation and duty…then I submit that what is reported in the CNN report supports my position.

“Our underwriting standards have tightened a little bit,” said Ronald Heaton, president of the Cedar City, Utah, bank. “… Our standards haven’t changed drastically, and we’re still loaning … but we’re watching our underwriting standards closely so that people are able to repay their loans.”

Mortgages that didn’t require borrowers to prove their income or make a down payment got many lenders into trouble, but his bank never offered those: “Didn’t make sense,” he said.

Some would-be borrowers “wanted us to do everything, and we said, ‘We don’t do everything. We have standards,’ ” Heaton added.

Nonbank mortgage lenders were able to generate substandard mortgages because they were not adequately regulated by the federal government, Heaton said.

Now those bad loans have come home to roost, the nonbank lenders are out of the game, and State Bank of Southern Utah’s mortgage business is picking up, Heaton said.

Folks…that’s just plain ole good ethics.  Heaton (whom I’ve never spoken to or met) is 100% accurate.  If you have standards (founded by sound business ethics) you won’t find yourself in major financial trouble.  I contend that lending practices, that were not founded with sound ethical principles, are in large part the root cause of why we are where we are today.

Another part of the CNN report states:

In Texas, the state Department of Banking says state-chartered institutions wisely stayed out of the subprime game.

“That’s not what we do. We’re not in the subprime market whatsoever,” said Todd McKee, president of Peoples Bank in Lubbock. “Lending here is the same as it’s always been.”

The way it’s always been is up close and personal. McKee said his bank’s customers prefer to do business with tellers face-to-face rather than through the drive-up window.

“I’m president of the bank, and I sit right by the front door, so I wave at every single soul that walks in the bank. Everybody has access to me,” he said. “My partner [Larry Allen] is the CEO. … He sits at the other door. So we know everybody that comes in the door.

May sound “hokey” but that is banking the way it was meant to be.  I recall my first loan when I was 18 years old (I’m now 51) was made – not by a credit score – (funny I don’t think they existed then), but rather the loan was made on character and the fact that the bank president trusted me to repay (and knew where my mama was if I didn’t).  I paid the loan back and was proud to do business with them.

This last comment from the article states it best – “You can look at credit all day, you can look at collateral, but if they can’t make that payment, there’s no sense in making that loan. And we’ve always done that. We’re all supposed to do that.”  That is business ethics!


Massive Government Bail-Out … Good Business or Bad Ethics? Ethics Speaker Chuck Gallagher Comments…

September 19, 2008

Unless you are on an island somewhere disconnected from society…you are no doubt aware that we are in the midst of one of the most massive government bail outs in US history!  While I wasn’t around during the great depression – from everything we read what is taking place now is second only to that and, folks, that is amazing.  I was around during the massive savings and loan scandal and, like most who read, know that we are far from over with this one.  In fact, I don’t know of many institutions (Savings and Loans that is) who did survive.  

If the past is to be repeated, our financial climate or landscape will be dramatically different in several years.  Further, seldom does the government estimate a number that is right.  You can count on the cost being several times what is proposed today.  200 Billion will likely be a drop in the bucket when it is all said and done.  

For months I have been reporting on mortgage frauds and the number seems to keep increasing.  Clearly, the “greed is good” mentality went far beyond the crooks who are being prosecuted today and spread far and wide.  The net is being cast wide for this financial disaster and many will not survive.

The question, however, here is – should the government being doing what it is doing.  Many popular writers of financial books say – YES.  “What took them so long?”  Yet others claim that the government has no business getting involved in private business – especially when there are companies who perhaps engaged in unethical behavior – knowing full well that the products they were selling would result in financial disaster for many.  When you loan money to someone who cannot afford to make the payments you are committing a financial unethical act.  Sure there is short term profit, but at what cost?   

What’s your opinion:  (1)  Were the financial institutions unethical in their actions related to the sub-prime mortgage issue? (2)  Should the government have taken the actions that are now underway?  (3) Would it have been better to let the free market take it’s own corrective action and let the chips fall where they may?

Good business or bad ethics – what’s your call?