Friday, January 14, 2011

Back Office Stick-Up

So I’ve had quite the holiday hiatus. In honor of the new year, I am kicking off the blog with a public service announcement. But first, a little background:

Last August, St. Pauli Girl was the victim of a hold-up. Except the thief didn’t have a mask or weapon and St. Pauli Girl never even met him. The thief was a large financial corporate institution we’ll call Rancid, Inc. (Times must be really, really tough.)

St. Pauli Girl withdrew a small sum from her retirement account held by Rancid, Inc. A couple of weeks later she received a call from the personnel office of her former employer: High Plains Drifter College. They told St. Pauli Girl they had received a $10,000 check made out to the college and referencing her name. The college had no idea why they received it and mailed the check to St. Pauli Girl.

St. Pauli Girl went online to check her account and noticed that the day after her small withdrawal, a $10,000 withdrawal had also been made. So despite now having the un-cashable check in her possession, her account was still missing $10,000.

Her retirement plan is a 403B plan which can best be described as the female equivalent of a 401k because it’s more complicated and has lots of “fine print” you ignored when you signed up. Plus it’s regulated by each individual state which means companies like Rancid, Inc. have to be able to handle these accounts in 50 different ways.

Surely a phone call would straighten things out? Well, here’s how that played out:

St. Pauli Girl: Can you tell me why $10,000 was taken from my account and sent to my former employer?

Rancid Operator: That check was requested by the college.

St. Pauli Girl: No, it wasn’t. I talked to them.

Rancid Operator: It’s standard procedure that a college requests the unvested amount of your investment when you leave their employment, and that’s what Giddyup College did.

St. Pauli Girl: Wait, Giddyup College? I haven’t worked for them in over ten years, and that was mostly part-time for just a few years. Almost all of my retirement investment is from High Plains Drifter College, where I was full-time for many years.

Rancid Operator: Well, when you change employers, you rollover what you had and the previous employer requests the unvested amount.

St. Pauli Girl: I changed colleges ten years ago! What took so long? Isn’t there a statute of limitations?

Rancid Operator: Let me ask a supervisor.

(20 minutes and 9 Musak songs later)

Rancid Operator: Yes, Giddyup College requested that money.

St. Pauli Girl: But you made the check out to High Plains Drifter and mailed the check to them.

Rancid Operator: Yes, hmm, well there goes my computer . . . sorry…. Let me ask a supervisor.

(20 more minutes later)

Rancid Operator: Ma’am? We mailed the check to High Plains because those two colleges merged.

St. Pauli Girl: What? Are you crazy? That sure will be news to them! Let me speak to your supervisor.

Rancid Operator: She just went to lunch. And I’d better get going too. Thanks for calling.

St. Pauli Girl tried numerous times to call back, but the Rancid operators put up a strong defense, and she couldn’t get past them. She tried to call the investment advisor listed on her statement, but he wouldn’t return her calls either. (Apparently he only returns calls when a commission is involved.) She called Giddyup College, and they verified they did not request a check . . . nor had they secretly merged with High Plains Drifter College.

We did extensive research and concluded no one was entitled to the money except St. Pauli Girl. We then mailed a formal letter to Rancid protesting her most recent retirement account statement and demanded the money be restored. (If this didn’t work, I knew where to find the A-Team.)

Finally after receiving our letter, a Rancid representative called to tell us there had been a mistake and the money would be restored by the end of the week. (It may have helped that in our letter we used words like “fraudulent,” “usury” and “chicanery.”) But no one ever explained the mistake. After $10,000 disappeared, no one could tell us how or why.

It was probably a computer glitch, or perhaps the fact that even minor employees have to know 50 different ways to handle retirement accounts. But in a large company like Rancid, no one is going to notice a missing $10,000. Luckily the HR person at High Plains Drifter College did notice.

So my public service announcement:

Balance your checkbook!

Always carefully read any investment statements!

Carefully review all bills, credit card statements and especially little charges on your phone bill!

If an ATM declines your withdrawal request, always check your statement and make sure the ATM didn’t take the money from your account anyway!

Times are tough; you never know when a company like Rancid, Inc. is going to keep a little something for themselves.

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