If you want to become angrier than you’ve been in quite some time…

…read the amended complaint filed against JP Morgan Chase. It’s a whopper…216 pages. I’m only on page 23 and I am livid. Here’s why.

At the end of 2009, it became widely known that banks regularly engage in shady accounting as a way of triggering excessive overdraft fees. Consumer outrage and pending legislation has forced some of the larger banks to change their ways. But another consequence is several class-action lawsuits. These suits allege what I was sort of aware of all along, namely that they do not give consumers any information about opting out of so-called overdraft “protection” (what a bullshit term, as overdraft protection implies just that- protection from an overdraft, not facilitating it), they purposefully rearrange transactions to generate more fees, and they do not accurately report current balance information to customers.

The poorest 10% of bank customers incur 90% of the fees. In the 10 or so years I’ve been a customer of Washington Mutual (now Chase). I’ve spent a fair amount of that time being employed part-time or unemployed altogether. In other words, I was poor. Poor people run chronically low balances in their bank accounts (duh). Reordering transactions or delaying a deposit will wreak havoc on those with double-digit balances. It matters.

Around 2005 or so the fees started accumulating in batches, and I would regularly end up over $100 in the hole for three to five small transactions. I would log onto my account and despair over the trail into insolvency. Most of the transactions would be under $10, each with a $20-something fee attached. Did that cup of coffee taste like it was sugared with gold flakes? Because it cost as much. I did notice that transactions were routinely posted in an order that only vaguely resembled the order in which I incurred them. This got me many times. “If only the phone bill had gone through AFTER the pack of cigarettes, soda, coffee, and pack of gum!” In a chronological world, I might have still overdrawn, but only once, not five times.

Sometimes I would plead with WaMu to reverse the fees, and many times I got the “Well that’s why we encourage you to balance your checkbook” speech. (First I ask, who even has a checkbook? Debit card use is widely touted as THE way to pay for things, with Visa check card advertisements going so far as to mock people who use cash.) Second, what good is it to balance your checkbook when the transactions are not even applied in the order you would’ve recorded them? Maybe I did balance my checkbook into ONE overdraft (oops!). Makes no difference when you log on the next day and find that the transactional order has taken on a life of it’s own and triggered an avalanche of fees.

I had asked several times, “Well why can’t the bank just decline the transactions I don’t have money for?” Nobody ever gave me a good answer, ranging from vague “We don’t do that” to “Just balance your checkbook.” I was never informed of opting-out. I didn’t know it was possible to do so, and while I don’t remember asking directly, it is clear to me that I was a customer not happy with the optional “service” of overdraft protection, and I should have been told about my right to discontinue it.

Now what about using the ATM or checking accounts online to monitor your balance? Not as accurate as one would hope. Check out Item D in the Factual Allegations section of the complaint, it’s a catchy little ditty entitled “Chase’s Cloaking of Accurate Balance Information.” All that time spent checking my balance and believing it to be accurate! Silly me. The problem is, when you are a person who regularly operates in the scary realm of Less Than $10 Till Payday, accurate balance information is kind of life or death, vitally important. I wouldn’t have bought a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes with my last $9 if I had known it was actually my last ten cents.

I don’t know how much in overdraft fees I’ve paid in the last 5 years. I do know that in 2009, the year of unemployment, it was over $1,000. The worst was last July, when I went to deposit the checks my roommates had written me for rent. I deposited them in person and asked for a cashier’s check to give to the landlord. The lady behind the counter told me my funds were on hold. Why? Because of my “account history.” I just about lost it. I asked, “You meant the account history where I have incurred and subsequently paid hundreds of dollars in fees? I should have a plaque on the wall, actually.” I know it wasn’t her fault, it just was a new Chase policy to make the lives of chronic fee payers even more miserable, but still. And what ended up happening? I couldn’t tell the landlord to wait 3 business days or whatever while my funds cleared. I had to write a check for rent that day. So I wrote a personal check, knowing the money was sitting in my account. And he cashed it before Chase let the funds go. I got an insufficient funds fee.

If you or anyone you know has dealt with this, check out bank-overdraft.com. I signed up to be a part of the national class action against Chase. They haven’t contacted me yet (I got an automated email telling me it could take awhile) but it definitely made me feel better. When I think of the last five years and how much financial difficulty I’ve dealt with, which was regularly made much worse by WaMu/Chase, I get so mad. This is one of the reasons I decided to become a paralegal. Besides the desire to get out of the realm of double-digit account balances, my passion for consumer advocacy has grown out of situations like these.

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