Students are disposable customers

I go to great lengths to avoid crying in public. I don’t even cry at movies. When I bang my shin against a table so hard it leaves a big swollen welt, I lock myself in the bathroom stall to wick away the tears.
Yet there I stood, bawling shamelessly in the lobby of TCF Bank in downtown St. Paul, trying to explain to the sympathetic customer service representative my uncharacteristic display of tears.
“I *sob* just wanted to *gasp* start a *sniffle* savings account,” I finally choked out.
The lady across the desk looked confused, but not as confused as I am today. For all the abuse students take from banks, there is nowhere for us to turn.
Banks have no incentive to treat us well because we have so little money to hand over, and until they eventually withdraw the superfluous finance charges at some point, there is no recourse.
My banking saga started at the Cub Foods TCF stand last spring. I wanted to deposit a large paycheck and open a savings account in which to keep some of it.
Instead I found out that gremlins had mysteriously entered TCF’s database and, without my knowing it, changed my address to someplace I had never lived. Several forms later, I was informed that I could only put $300 in my new savings account. This seemed odd, but I went along with it.
Then I asked if they could fix my check card because the magnetic strip wore out. The teller said “Yes,” took my card and bent it in half right before my eyes. They said a new one would come in the mail. To this day, I am still waiting for the check card.
After depositing my check, I had more money in my account than I had ever possessed before in my life, yet there was a hold on all of my accounts. My U Card was mysteriously deactivated from its ATM functions, too.
I called, but was continuously put on hold. Although I called TCF, they transferred me to the Chase Manhattan charge card phone line, which had nothing to do with my problems. Finally TCF told me they couldn’t help me over the phone and that I needed to leave work in the rain and physically walk into a bank before I could access any of my own money.
After living for four days on pocket change I had scrounged up from the couch cushions, I needed to withdraw at least 50 cents to afford the bus ride home. I entered the confines of that bank — wet, tired and exasperated — and broke down in tears.
It took another two days before I could use my U Card in an ATM and, despite numerous promises and return trips to the bank, I never got another check card.
When I insisted I needed my check card for an upcoming L.A. vacation, the bank gave me traveler’s cheques instead. Believe me, they don’t let you into the Viper Room if you try to pay the cover with a traveler’s cheque. I spent the entire trip explaining my adolescent and geeky finances to snickering friends and onlookers.
I’m not the only person who suffers wrongs at the hands of banks. A friend of mine ordered a single box of checks from her bank this summer. When she did not receive them, a teller denied that she had ever placed an order.
But shortly thereafter she received two boxes of checks and the bank charged her for both of them, putting her account into overdraft. She spent months finagling before the bank finally removed the charges from her account.
Countless tales about other banks can be found at www.badbanks.com, a forum to warn potential bank customers about banks with historically poor service.
We have been wronged, but where can we turn? A financial institution worth nearly $10 billion like TCF doesn’t care if I close my meager account, which rarely breaks $1,000.
Banks do have supervising boards to which customers can appeal. National banks fall under the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, state-chartered banks are supervised by Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and thrifts are monitored by the Office of Thrift Supervision. But without financial losses, there is little action these agencies can take.
Disgruntled consumers can also go to the attorney general’s office or the Better Business Bureau.
“We are here to help consumers,” explained Leslie Sanders, spokeswoman for Attorney General Mike Hatch. But, she said, while consumers can always file a complaint, there is little action they can take without monetary, or at least tangible, damage.
Yet filing a complaint to sit in the coffers of a dusty file cabinet will not compensate for my suffering.
TCF is not the only bank with poor service, as www.badbanks.com stands to show, but the University should not continue a partnership with any institution that is so inconsiderate and sloppy with student business.
TCF officials might not care whether they lose my account, but they would probably care about losing the University contract, which puts its logo on every gopher’s U Card. The contract expires on June 30, 2000, said Sheila Warness, director of asset management at the University. Before the University renews that contract, officials should hold an open forum for students to rate the bank’s service.
It is common knowledge among University students that TCF has poor service. When I tell people I had a bad experience with TCF Bank, they shrug at me knowingly as if to say, “What did you expect? It’s TCF.”
Ron Britz, vice president of relationship banking at TCF, said customer service representatives try to rectify problems and apologize for mistakes that occur with customer accounts.
“We’re not perfect,” he said. “Honest mistakes are made every day in the course of business.”
If TCF does abide by the “customer is always right” principle as Britz said, then during an open forum, good comments will outweigh bad stories like mine. But to find that out, such a forum or survey should be conducted.
University officials need to be aware of student grievances before they continue a business relationship with TCF. And this time, when I get up to tell University President Mark Yudof and the regents my story, I won’t cry.
Coralie Carlson’s column appears on alternate Thursdays. She welcomes comments to [email protected]