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Predatory banking practices bilk citizens

Recently two local banks, U.S. Bank and Umpqua Bank, have settled large class action lawsuits regarding their practices related to the collection of bank overdraft fees. Although not admitting any wrongdoing, these banks have created settlement funds of $55 million and $2.9 million respectively in response to the lawsuits.

These practices include overdraft fees that are frequently $35 per transaction, even if the overdraft is only $1. The lawsuits alleged that these banks were not posting transactions in chronological order, and were in fact posting transactions in an order that maximized the overdraft fees their customers had to pay. This is a predatory practice that can cause problems for the majority of people, but also can cause nearly irreparable damage for the vulnerable populations in our community.

We have been privileged to work in the human services field, where we work to empower people living with mental illness to improve the quality of their lives. Much of our work involves advocacy to help people overcome the obstacles they encounter.

Recently we attempted to assist an individual who has been diagnosed with multiple chronic mental health issues. He had admittedly mismanaged his finances over the past year, resulting in a financial crisis in which he was on the verge of being evicted from his apartment, thus becoming homeless, unable to pay his utilities or purchase his medications. As a consequence of the stress he was experiencing, his mental health was deteriorating and he became at increased risk for hospitalization.

Upon further investigation, it became apparent that this crisis was due, at least in part, to predatory banking practices that resulted in his paying $1,900 over the past year in overdraft fees. The bank was taking his Social Security Disability checks to satisfy these fees. Efforts by the individual to close the account were denied by the bank due to their policies. Efforts to advocate with the bank to allow for at least partial release of this gentleman’s Social Security benefits in order to avoid homelessness were unsuccessful. Alternatively, other community resources to which many of us contribute were tapped to assist this person. The bottom line: The bank made a profit from this person’s situation but we all paid the price.

Understandably, we are working with this individual on budgeting and financial management to ensure that this situation does not continue to occur, but what is more disturbing is the banking practices that pushed this situation much further than it ever needed to go and which inevitably force the community to respond to these situations.

This situation also brought to light another aspect of related banking practices. Federal law prohibits the garnishing of Social Security checks to pay creditors (other than the U.S. government, but in that case the amount is limited to 15 percent of payments). The intent of this law is to protect the social safety net that Social Security was created to provide in the first place. In 2002, in the case of Lopez v. Washington Mutual, the 9th Circuit Court decided that banks could not use future deposits of Social Security payments to cover overdraft fees. Because of heavy legal pressures on the part of the banking industry, however, this ruling was overturned; banks have since been allowed to continue the practice, despite its being prohibited to other creditors.

The Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group, has found that consumers heavily dependent on Social Security income pay $1 billion in overdrafts a year. This is a very troubling trend, especially given that Social Security beneficiaries, the elderly and disabled, are some of our most vulnerable citizens.

In 2008 the Congressional Oversight Committee of the Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration released a statement saying, “The ability of both banks and non-bank financial services providers (FSPs), such as payday loan and check-cashing companies, to access and assess fees against individuals' Social Security benefits exists purely as an as-yet unaddressed side effect of the advent of direct deposit.”

Congressional action has been slow to respond to this issue, but as a community we can help to bring about change that will protect the disadvantaged and our community. Please contact your congressional representatives to insist that this situation be remedied as soon as possible to protect our vulnerable citizens and our community.

Kathleen M. McNeill, Ph.D., a retired mental health professional, is a former clinical supervisor at Jackson County Mental Health. She is a member of the board of Compass House, a nonprofit organization serving the chronically mentally ill in Jackson County. Matthew Vorderstrasse is executive director of Compass House, chairman of the Jackson County Mental Health Advisory Committee and a member of the Rogue Retreat Board of Directors.