Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Me and my Harley

This story begins a long time ago, and while I hope it has ended, I could be wrong.  I did not keep any of the documents underlying this story; this is all from memory. I damn well should have kept some of the documents, as will be clear.

My mother worked for a while for Chase Manhattan Bank. Initially she worked in an office downtown in the financial district, where the bank interacted with traders on the New York Stock Exchange. At the time, before the banks were deregulated, there was not that much that the banks did with regards to buying and selling stocks, but there was some.  Mom was not a trader, but worked with some of the traders. We got some interesting freebies from the traders, such as New York Rangers tickets, Knicks tickets, tickets to Mets games, and even tickets to a BC vs. Army game at West Point, where we sat surrounded by generals. We were on the wrong side of the field, unfortunately.

After a while, my mother took a job, with Chase, at a branch in Bedford Hills, NY, in Westchester.  My parents had purchased a home in Ridgefield, CT, just an easy 20 or 30 minute drive away from Bedford Hills (or 120 if it was snowing). My mother liked working there, until one day the police came and took away the bank manager in handcuffs.  The story, as best I can recall, is that he was being blackmailed by his (male) lover, and he wanted to keep matters secret from his wife and kids, and used some of Chase’s money to help pay the blackmail. My mother was pretty shook up. 

Later, my parents moved closer to the city, and my Mom transferred to a branch in New Rochelle, NY. At that branch, the assistant manager was fired, because he was funneling money to his girlfriend. But he got a good reference when he applied at another bank, probably because his affair was not same-sex, or because the girl was a minority, or because Chase didn’t want the publicity.  At any rate, without working at a bank, I was getting a look at the dark underside of the banking business.

I had a job at an insurance company in New York, making next to nothing, but I needed a checking account.  At this point, a typical retail checking account had a fee per check, or else you had to maintain a sizable minimum balance, which was out of my reach.  My mother helped me get a Chase checking account, affiliated somehow with her employment, that didn’t cost me anything.  With that account came a Visa card, which I threw in a drawer and never used.

Later, I became enamored with the services at Citibank, which was the first company to do ATM’s right. I started banking there, and even after I took a job with a Chemical Bank subsidiary with a free employee account, I would just write a check and move it to Citi.  And I closed my Chase account, or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me, I still had a Chase Visa card.

Mom left Chase when my Dad accepted a transfer to Tulsa, OK. I eventually accepted a position with a company in Texas, and moved there.  Some years later, I am guessing 1992 or so, I got a phone call from someone at Chase. They asked if I was James McDonough, and asked if I lived at (my former address in Dallas). I replied yes to both. I could tell, they were excited – they had me.  They started asking questions about my Chase Visa card. I didn’t have a Chase Visa card.  (Actually, at this point I had completely forgotten that I ever had a Chase Visa card, but I found it in a storage box years later.) They asked again about my former address, and I said I used to live there but I didn’t have a Chase Visa card – at that time the only thing I used was American Express. 

They called over and over and over again. Always Chase Bank, always asking about the debt on the Chase Visa card.

What I think happened is that a renewal card was mailed to an address where I no longer lived, probably not the Dallas address, and instead of the card being returned undeliverable, someone opened it and started using it.

One time the person who called from Chase (her name was Victoria) was actually sympathetic. She told me that whoever had this card had purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with it, and had spent over $400 at a Red Lobster in New York.  And this had occurred in 1984. So, 6 or 8 years later, they were after me.  I said I was not responsible for the debt and would not pay it.  Every time I said that to someone from Chase, the same response would come back: “But didn’t you live at (my former Dallas address)?”  I would say yes, but I did not ever use a Chase Visa card in New York or anywhere else. I had been a victim of identity theft.  Then they would ask had I filed a police report. Well, you have to understand, the event occurred six or eight years before I ever knew about it – the term ‘identity theft’ had not even been invented. And why would I file a police report – I was not out any money.

The calls went on, and finally Chase turned it over to a collection agency. I wrote the agency, telling them it was not my debt and I was not responsible. They sent it back to Chase, and then Chase got really ugly, wanting to know why I had made the collection agency send it back.  Then the guy said I had to write them a letter, and sign it six times, saying it was not my debt.  I decided to try something different.  By now there was an Internet – so I looked up the names of the senior executives of Chase.  I picked out the name of Arthur Ryan, then President of Chase, and wrote him a letter, explaining how Chase was harassing a son of a Chase retiree and asked them to stop.

So they wrote back, apologized, and the harassment stopped.

About five years later, a couple of months after I had trashed all the correspondence, I started getting calls from the more sophisticated collection agencies.  Chase had written the debt off, and sold it to some bottom-feeders for pennies or less on the dollar. I was back to square one.

I went through half a dozen of these companies, telling them one by one that I did not acknowledge responsibility for the debt, that I could pay the debt any time I cared to, but that I would not because it wasn’t mine.  Usually they would call a couple of times and figure it out.  But then I ran into Portfolio Recovery Associates.  These guys called a couple of times a week for five years. I finally wrote them a letter, and they stopped for a couple of years, then started up again. At least their caller ID identifies who they are so my wife and I know to ignore them.

It has been a few years since they’ve called.  The ‘debt’ is almost 30 years old, beyond the statute of limitations, but there’s no limit on attempting to collect a debt.  I expect to hear from them again.

I’m not paying.

At one point during the heat of the arguments with Chase, I was in a Harley-Davidson shop in Del Mar, CA.  I thought about having my picture taken atop a motorcycle, but thought maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea.  I bought a Harley-Davidson coffee mug, instead. 

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