Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On banks, mortgages and Ahmadinejad

It's been a while. How have you all been?

This is a busy time for me, what with all the Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanna nearly two weeks ago, Yom Kippur last Friday and Saturday (Sept. 21 and 22, 2007) and Sukkos coming up tomorrow night and lasting for eight days, four of which we are forbidden from writing. With the intervening Sabbaths - also no writing - it's hard on the continuity.

At the same time, there has been a lot going on in my life, both as me and as the president of a synagogue where a vital member of the staff has been taken ill and I have had to put in much more time than usual. So, please don't take it personally, or as a lack of interest, if you don't hear from me much in the next week or so. I'll write when I can, so please check in from time to time.

I see that a number of people from across the ponds, as it were, are logging in -- England, Sweden and the Philippines in the last couple of days. Welcome and come back often.

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As a journalist for close to 40 years, it's inbred not to write about things that have happened to one personally -- in other words not to use the column to write about people who have ticked you off.

But on the other hand, if this is happening to us (my wife and I, not the royal we), then it is probably happening to people who don't have the experience and wherewithal to fight back. So, hereby hangs a tail.

You know the bank -- it's got ads with Huns and outlaws pursuing people who use other banks' credit cards. According to the ads, the other banks don't keep their promises. One of the newest is a beautiful young girl kissing first a frog, then a turkey and finally a minotaur in order to turn them into a prince. The catchline is "What's in your wallet?"

Well, we bit. We had some money in an account with a high interest rate, so we opened an account with the "What's in Your Wallet?" bank and asked them to transfer the money into that account with the promise that the interest rate would be X and it would not change while we were paying off the balance.

So far, so good. We got a letter welcoming us. Weeks later, the transfer had not been made so we inquired. Computer glitch, we were told after numerous phone calls, lost calls and the like. Finally, weeks after the first inquiry, we were told the transfer was done.

Now, in comes the statement and the interest charge is 6 points higher than promised because our transfer amount is listed as a purchase, which carries the higher rate. So, on the phone again (sing to the tune of the Willie Nelson theme song).

Now we have dealt with banks in the past, but never run into this. You guys made a mistake, we say. Anyone can make a mistake, although we are reminded of the old James Bond rubric, once is happenstance, twice is circumstance, three is enemy action.

We can't confirm that we made a mistake, they say. We have to do research on this, they say. We'll get back to you, but we can't tell you when, they say.

The next day, we pick up a message. The bank has called and we need to call the Senior Account Management Team. Just call the main number and you will be connected to a team member.

Senior Account Management Team -- this sounds like they think Bill Gates or at least Alberto Gonzalez has called. So we call back. First a machine asks for our account number and ZIP code. Then (I must say quite quickly) a person comes on and asks for our account number and ZIP code. We ask for the Senior Account Management Team, please.

Can't send you there until you tell me your problem, says the voice on the phone. We were told to ask for the Senior Account Management Team, we say. I want to help you but cannot until you tell me your problem, the voice says. We give the voice a synopsis of our problem and say again we were instructed to ask for the SAMT. Music (staticy).

Another voice, this time male, deep and authoritative. Are you with the Senior Account Management Team, we ask. No, says the deep male voice. Can you transfer us to the Senior Account Management Team? Not until you tell me your problem, says the voice. We just went through this with the last person, and we were instructed....

I want to help you but cannot unless you tell me (you get the idea.) By this time, my wife, who is usually calm and collected on the phone, who made her living for 20 years being calm and collected on the phone, is ready to kill. We repeat the synopsis. More staticy music.

A woman this time comes on the phone. Are you with the Senior Account Management Team? Yes.


We ask if she has our file in front of her. Yes. Do you have an answer for us? An answer to what? We give her the synopsis. She says the person we spoke to yesterday has requested that the problem be solved and put that request in right after we spoke yesterday. Couldn't she tell us that yesterday? I don't know why she didn't, says the latest voice. So the problem is solved, right? I can't say that. The request has been put in. That's all I can tell you. Can we get this in writing, we ask. No, says the voice. We don't do that. How will we know, we ask.

It'll be on your next statement. What is our real interest rate as it will be on the next statement, we ask. She tells us the rate we were originally promised. Can't you reduce that to writing and send us an e-mail? No, we don't do that, the voice says. You have to wait until your last statement.

We will wait until our next statement, with bated breath. As far as "What's in Your Wallet?" is concerned, as my old boss Bill Pike used to say with a pointed finger and frowning face "That's Strike 2." One more screw-up and I can tell you what will NOT be in our wallets.

As a journalist, I would have to call the bank, get their side of the story -- why this runaround, who needs this much bureaucracy, does this happen often?

As a blogger and commentator, I can say I don't care. Things like this shouldn't happen. I don't care why they do, or with what frequency, although I'm sure I'm not the only recipient of this frustrating waste of our time. Just fix it.

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It seems the NAACP has sued a number of lenders, saying that blacks were victimized by being given sub-prime mortgages when they might have qualified for conventional mortgage loans. According to The New York Times story by Bob Tedeschi, the NAACP alleges in its suit against 11 major mortgage lenders that blacks were given the subprime loans 30 percent more often than white borrowers with similar financial credentials.

The lawsuit was announced in July, and some of the lenders have come forward to meet with NAACP lawyers to fix the problem. The suit demands regular mortgages for those who were unjustly denied them, and money to cover closing expenses for those people so they won't be financially penalized for being denied what should have been given to them in the first place.

OK so far. Two things caught my eye.

First, there were "a significant number" of African-Americans who said they had been given high-cost loans when they could have qualified for less expensive conventional mortgages. My question is: Why did they do that? Why didn't they seek out the conventional mortgages? If this lender won't give you what you want and what you deserve, take a hike and find someone who will. There are literally hundreds of banks, mortgage bankers, mortgage brokers and other lenders out there who issue mortgages. Sorry, but there has to be some personal responsibility. You need to do your homework.

Secondly, there were folks who said they didn't know they could qualify for conventional mortgages. To the NAACP, the state and federal housing departments, the community action agencies and the lenders: SHAME ON YOU.

The first job of the FHA, the CHFA in Connecticut and other state housing finance entities is education. In this superheated housing market that just crashed in flames, you should have been out there, proactive in seeking out those who might want mortgages, telling them that if they have excellent or even good credit, if they have an appropriate down payment, if they have a good job or a college degree in a profession that promises good income, they should at least seek out a conventional mortgage.

It's bad enough that low-income people with marginal credit and little or no down payment were buying houses they couldn't hope to afford. They needed to be told they were buying nightmares and they needed to be told by people they trusted.

Even more, you need to be there for people who earn a good income, have saved up enough for a reasonable down payment but who may not be sophisticated enough to navigate the mortgage maze. In my opinion, shame on you for letting these folks down.

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It's not often that thinking Americans can have the same reaction to our president and the head of a terrorist state. Maybe that's a bit strong, but not beyond the pale.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the shrimp with a big mouth who heads the government that is responsible for much of the terror in the Middle East and beyond, was at the United Nations today, listening to President Bush. Both deserve the Bronx Cheer.

"The people of Lebanon and Afghanistan and Iraq have asked for our help, and every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand with them," Bush said.

Under Bush, the U.S. has done great things for Afghanistan. We came in there like Gangbusters, stayed too short a time and then pulled out to chase after imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, leaving the new government there to deal with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's folks nearly by themselves.

People will say Ahmadinejad is the real bad guy here. No question -- he is behind Hamas, Hizbollah and is a major reason for the chaos that is the Middle East.. That and our stupid and wasteful attempt to bring true democracy to a country, Iraq, that is truly ruled by tribal leaders and probably should be,

For Ahmadinejad, a little advice. Go home and thank Allah that the worst thing that happened to you here was a tongue-lashing by the president of Columbia University and a group of newsmen letting you make a fool of yourself. Tonight, you will be interviewed by Christiane Amanpour, who will ask you questions and let you weasel-word your way out of answering any hard ones.

For Bush...why bother. Why say anything to a guy who believes in the Disney school of governance: Wishing will make it so.

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I haven't forgotten about the travelogue. Stay tuned.

Until next time...

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