Banks keep pulling from bag of tricks

by David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times

Consumers might feel like they’re playing Whac-A-Mole when it comes to shenanigans involving the banking industry. Just as one issue gets resolved, something else pops up.

Bank of America retreated this week from its planned introduction of a $5 monthly fee for many customers to use their debit cards. The bank said it "listened to our customers very closely" and decided that charging people money to access their money maybe wasn’t the best idea after all.

At the same time, Chase credit card customers are receiving a letter about their privacy preferences. The letter says that even though the bank’s records "indicate that you are not being mailed any offers from Chase," the bank wants "to be sure that you know about available offers and that you have the opportunity to consider them."

It’s thus giving customers until Dec. 15 to once again register their privacy preferences. "If you do not respond," the letter says, "you may begin to receive offers in the mail about these products and services."

Like a kid who keeps pestering his parents with the same question until he gets the answer he wants, Chase is essentially forcing customers to repeat the opt-out process under the guise of "updating our customers’ preferences."

This is an offensive and insulting tactic designed solely to winnow the number of people who prefer not to be bothered with unwanted marketing materials.

It also highlights the intrusiveness of an industrywide policy that requires consumers to opt out of receiving such pitches, rather allowing people to opt in to marketing programs, if they so choose.

"Opt-in would be much fairer," said Joe Ridout, a spokesman for the advocacy group Consumer Action. "Very few people actually take the time to opt out of receiving junk mail."

Banks know this, which is why making customers opt out a second time is all the more obnoxious. Chase appears to be betting that many customers who opted out once won’t bother doing so again, thereby increasing the number of people it can try to sell stuff to.

Even an incremental change could be significant. In the most recent quarter, Chase had more than 64 million active credit card accounts.

Paul Hartwick, a Chase spokesman, declined to say how many customers have been sent the opt-out-again letter, which he said started going out last week.

He said the letter is being sent to all credit card customers who have been with the bank at least five years and have already expressed a preference for not being bugged with marketing pitches.

"We have introduced a number of new products and services for consumers and we also have combined do-not-mail lists from prior organizations," Hartwick said. "We sent these letters to ensure it is the individual’s desire to remain on our do-not-mail list."

Sure. Because you just know that people who’d take the time to opt out once from receiving unwanted marketing pitches might suddenly have a change of heart and realize how empty their lives have become without a steady stream of solicitations for various financial services.

"They’re willfully disregarding their customers’ stated preference not to receive junk mail," said Ridout at Consumer Action.

Bank of America wasn’t heeding the wishes of customers when it scrapped its $5 debit card fee. It was backing off from an increasingly untenable situation as consumers denounced the company for its greed, and as other banks dropped their own plans for similar fees.

Chase should behave accordingly. Rather than bullying customers into loosening their privacy restrictions, the bank should leave well enough alone and respect the preference that customers have already expressed.

Better still, Chase could show that it’s the one bank that really listens to its customers. It’s already dropped a proposed $3 monthly debit card fee. Now it should be the first bank to allow customers to opt in to marketing pitches, instead of making them opt out ‘ twice.

Lightning balls

Maybe you’ve seen the commercial: A group of black-suited sky divers leap out the back of a plane from a very high altitude. But before doing so, each one plucks what appears to be a ball of lightning from a locker.

The sky divers hurtle into the atmosphere, where they throw the lightning balls into the clouds, creating huge bolts of lightning that somehow improve the service of the ad’s sponsor, Verizon Wireless.

But did you catch the disclaimer? It’s there on the screen in tiny white letters as the sky divers plummet earthward with their lightning balls.

"Professionals. Do not attempt."

Aside from the fact that it’s physically impossible to clutch a lightning ball, does Verizon really think people are dumb enough to try jumping out of planes as a result of seeing this commercial?

Apparently not. Ken Muche, a Verizon Wireless spokesman, said the patently silly disclaimer was included at the insistence of broadcast networks. It wasn’t Verizon’s idea.

I asked which TV channels were concerned that viewers might try launching themselves from airplanes with lightning balls in hand. Muche declined to answer.

It’s nice to know, though, that broadcasters have our best interests at heart.