Back in April, I wrote about Bank of America’s horrible handling of Payroll Protection Loans. I wrote about a case I knew — my own. After my column appeared, I received one email after another written by business owners who experienced the same nightmare. I then wrote a column, copying some of these emails, and calling on BofA President, Brian Monyihan, to listen to the truly awful manner in which he and his colleagues were treating his customers, many, like me, who had been customers for decades.
Last week, I received the following from Jim Thiele.
Dr. Kotlikoff, I read your Forbes article on the issues related to the PPP Loan — especially related to the experience with Bank of America. I have a similar story but it’s really another case of “bad behavior” and I was wondering if you had heard of this new wrinkle recently. On June 26, Bank of America closed my two deposit accounts on suspicion of fraudulent activity. Turns out they were completely wrong and have since apologized. Problem is — both hard copy letters that I received in the mail were threatening — insulting — and just an outright slap in my face. Full disclosure — I went to West Point and have always tried to live above the line when it relates to integrity so you can imagine this was quite the shock.
But what makes this not so funny was the letter I received last night (after fighting this with their pitiful customer support last week) where there was the line “… any remaining balance won’t be returned to you.” There’s over $10,000 in funds received from an SBA loan (not PPP) but for agricultural folks like myself (130 acre farm with black angus cattle) and now I’m being told it’s been “seized?” In reality, BofA has admitted that they made a mistake — but only because I have been calmly bellowing about this since I received the first letter on July 1. I’ve demanded (and gotten them to agree) to put in writing that this was an error on their part. We will see what their attorneys say but I’m hopeful that this will protect me against their threat conveyed in the first letter suggesting that they might report me to ChexSystems and this might affect my ability to get an account at any financial institution for up to five years.
A couple days later, Jim wrote,
Dr. Kotlikoff, It is unreal. I did an interview with a local consumer investigator from our TV station today. He’s going to let me know if the story gets picked up. He said it’s likely because it ties into another story he did where the stakes were much higher — some $90k “impounded” in a similar set of circumstances. I found out that it’s the CFPB that is the right agency for these types of complaints. Filed today and saw that there’s a database of complaints that yield this information. If you want to try to get there directly it’s from the official site, then the third tab: Data & Research: https://www.consumerfinance.gov/
This shows that since March 1, 2020 there have been 147 complaints about Bank of America “closing checking accounts.”
I then asked Jim to describe in detail exactly his experience. See his response below. Jim was able to get his money back. I’m wondering if the Bank has returned the money it apparently confiscated from the other 147 complainants. Jim, as he writes, is leaving Bank of America as soon as possible. A wholesale exodus may be the only thing that will get Brian Monyihan and his colleagues to understand that they can’t keeping treating their customers with utter contempt and indifference and expect to stay in business.
Dear Larry, Knowing that you shared your own horrible experiences with getting a PPP loan through Bank of America, I wanted to share my own story as it relates to the other side of the funding machine.
My name is Jim Thiele and we own a small 130-acre farm an hour south of Atlanta, Georgia, where we raise Black Angus cattle. Over the past six years, my son-in-law and I have worked hard to reclaim the soil from timberland by digging out stumps, smoothing and plowing the soil, and planting pastures. It is backbreaking work and very costly, but the goal was to create a working farm that will serve as our legacy.
Originally, I’m a “city boy from Chicago” but after I graduated from West Point in 1985 and served five years in the Army at Fort Stewart, Georgia, I decided that, for the sake of my family, I would get out of the service. We moved to the outskirts of Atlanta and my wife and I raised our daughter while I worked in and around the restaurant industry on the technology side.
Fast forward 30 years and I am still happily working to support the restaurant industry, but I saw that we needed a way to keep the family connected and revert to a simpler way of life. The farm was that path and we have been blessed ever since. But, with the COVID pandemic and a general economic downturn, we needed help to continue operations and were pleased to qualify for a small SBA loan. But…that is where the rest of the story begins. This is my harrowing saga of getting the loan funded but then getting it illegally seized by the bank without due process, explanation, or cause.
Not too long ago there were issues in getting the SBA loans out to those that really needed the help given the COVID pandemic. Now, we see financial institutions reaping billions of dollars in fees for processing loans to only their “best” customers. But to add insult to injury, for small business owners like myself that did get funded, there is another trap looming right around the corner.
On June 10, my SBA loan request was funded by direct deposit from the Treasury to my Bank of America deposit account. On June 26, Bank of America sent a letter stating that they closed my account without any explanation and that “Our decision to close your account is final and may affect your ability to open an account with us in the future.” Even worse was the literal threat that “This may affect your ability to open an account at other financial institutions for up to five years.”
Knowing that this had to be a mistake, I called Bank of America and faced the gauntlet of customer no-service options with a variety of messages stating that “We are experiencing high call volumes.”
When the first “real” employee answered, I was given a gruff answer that my accounts were closed… And? The representative struggled to explain why — reading cryptic notes on screen stating that there was “a mismatch in the data” on my account and it was flagged. “What does that mean?” I asked. There was no answer so I asked to speak to a supervisor who also treated me as a likely criminal. Finally, she did agree to submit my account back to the analyst for “further review.”
Of course I fully expected that someone would call me back and tell me that it was all just a mistake but when I asked about this, the supervisor laughed and said no and that I would simply have to call back tomorrow. Really? And to wait on hold again to continue this abusive treatment?
But I did call back 24 hours later and waited on hold again only to be told that my account was closed and that it was still under review. Once again I asked to speak to a supervisor who said that the investigation was still ongoing and that my funds were ‘being held in the back office’ pending this review. Obviously, I did not find this to be an acceptable answer so I asked to escalate it further.
After a very tense conversation, I was told I could escalate it to the Office of President and was transferred. But it was the generic customer service line which “demanded” that I provide an account number. But wait… My account was closed and the system did not recognize that number. I was able to push enough buttons to get past that layer of security and have someone answer the phone. When I asked for the “executive relations department” I was then transferred to a black hole. In other words, instead of dealing with the problem, the agent who answered simply punted me off somewhere else in the Bank of America universe. Three tries later and I was actually able to talk with someone who listened long enough to help. I received an email address to which I could capture and share my rants. By now, I had plenty to share and did so in several carefully constructed emails to plead my case.
I jumped on the chance to plead my case, knowing that this was my chance to tell my story and get someone to listen. Maybe? I pointed out that I was taking a deliberate four pronged approach: 1) executive escalation including letters to both the CEO and investor relations 2) communication with Congressman Jody Hice, GA 10th District 3) formal complaints to the bank regulatory agencies and 4) public forums and news outlets to spread awareness.
I also demanded a formal letter of release to ensure that their ability to harm my future banking capabilities is removed. I was told that this letter has been drafted and is in legal review. As soon as I get this letter, I am going to withdraw my funds, close my accounts, and head to a local bank where I can see where my money is going.
In short, the byzantine system that protects companies like Bank of America has been corrupted and perverted. This experience worries me enough to want to tell others to watch out and to prompt our elected officials to probe a bit deeper into their nefarious intentions. I will get my money back and end my relationship with them but what about the “common man?”
Update: Even after escalating this and getting the answer that this was all a huge mistake and that “we’re back to normal,” I received a follow-on letter dated June 30, 2020 that, in bold letters, stated “We’ve closed the above account” and that “[a]t this time, any remaining balance won’t be returned to you.”