Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bank of America: Don't Bother

After deciding not to borrow from Bank of America, I ended up with Bank of America's "service" anyway: they bought my loan.

So, to avoid the SNAFUs I foresaw with Bank of America screwing up ordinary transactions as I'd seen in the past, I decided to make timely payment of the loan Bank of America's responsibility: I decided to set up automatic recurring payment of the loan. The steps to reproduce my experience are:

(1) Go through the dance to set up an online ID for managing Bank of America accounts. There were several steps, involving emails and snail-mail instructions, but this was ultimately accomplished without incident. Ameriprise Bank could learn something.

(2) Search diligently for evidence of how Bank of American invites users to accomplish payment online. This can take a while. The online information does indicate that setting up what Bank of America calls a "pay plan" – the automatic recurring periodic payment of an amount due under a loan payable to Bank of America – can be accomplished online. Searching for the mechanism to accomplish this will take longer than your patience endures, however, because establishing automatic payments of amounts due under mortgage agreements has not been possible since last October. This last but critical fact is not disclosed online, and is entirely inconsistent with – in fact, directly contrary to – the instructions advising users they can establish pay plans online.

(3) Call for help.
(a) This part is tricky because the numbers to which mortgage customers are routed tries very hard to steer you into making a one-time payment, and there is no recurring payment mechanism available by phone. This mirrors the situation online, but it's easier to identify on the phone because the options are fewer in number. When you try pressing "0" to get a human, a voice warns you that using a human can lead to higher fees. It is possible, using contact numbers buried in the web site, to get a human without facing the phone queue and its fee threats, but this is probably not the experience you'll have from the outset.
(b) Let's say that after an hour of trying to follow web instructions that don't work, you eventually get a phone number that leads you to a human. This is where, in hindsight, things really because irritating. The human was obviously consulting notes in giving his instructions, which lent an air of authority: he wasn't making this up, he was guided by printed materials to keep everybody giving accurate information. He instructed me that I needed to set this up online. You are going to see the punch line coming long before I did on this one, but bear with me. I was carefully led through a laborious process of associating my external "pay from" account with my online mortgage account so I'd be able to set all this up, and even informed that I was just one step away from completing the automatic payment setup.
(c) I entered bank info online so BoA could pull cash from my account at will, and I looked for a way to ask it to start. The helpful guy told me that, of the options I read him, I needed "verify" – that this would clear the account to start automatically paying the mortgage bill.
(d) Over the next days, I read from my account at a real financial institution that Bank of American had deposited $0.43 and $0.63 into my external "pay from" account. I dutifully logged into the BoA site and entered these numbers in the account verification boxes. My external "pay from" account was now verified! Hurray! I was done! And only three days of effort!
(e) Or was I? I tried to find evidence the account was actually going to be charged. The confirmation information simply said the account had been verified and that it was ready for making payments, not that any were scheduled. The online system included a make-a-payment link for folks who wanted to pay from an external account (or another BoA account), so it was quite plausible that nothing was set up at all. I began hunting for evidence of how to start the automatic payments. See Step (2) above. After patience failed, I began Step (3) again, looking for a human to finish what was obviously half-done.

(4) Get Help For Real. The same phone queues I accessed in (3) above tried to direct me to make one-time payments and actually hung up on me. In my last call, after 37 minutes of alternately being interrupted by agents trying to tell me that "bill pay" can't be used on a mortgage (BoA has a product called "bill pay" that is used for something else) and being placed on hold waiting for someone able to speak intelligibly about the bank's products, and being placed on hold waiting for someone authorized by BoA to confirm I intended to authorize BoA's payment of the mortgage from the account I verified online and from which BoA presumably would allow me to make an unlimited number of payments in any amount I chose, I finally was told the mortgage bill was set to be paid on time every month without one of the fees BoA charges for many of its payment options (the payment scheme is dizzying, and every tier has a different fee).

All told, it was about a week to get the account set up to pay the mortgage loan automatically, a half-dozen calls, numerous trips to the web site, and lots of mistaken online and human-provided instruction. An enormous waste of time.

I'll be looking for alternatives to end up in business with a different bank. As for you: borrow from someone else. Try to make sure you borrow from someone who'll be servicing the loan, not just originating it. You may save some middle-man fees that way, too.

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