By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com

This week, Doris in Texas is having trouble getting the phone company to live up to their promise to give her some free calls. (One solution may just be in hanging up the phone.) Meanwhile, Bernard in Alaska wants to know why his local bank asked him so many annoying questions when he went to open a new account.

JUST HANG UP
I am having problems with my phone company. They had told me that I would not be charged for minutes used for one month. Now it seems that is not the case. I have a very large bill now and no way to pay it. What can I do about this?
         
Doris P., Santa Fe, Tex.

There are two ways to proceed when a company break its promise. The first step is to try to reason with them. The second step is to take legal action.

Many people give up on this first step, largely because the experience of dealing with large companies’ telephone-based response systems (especially the new “automated” variety) is so excruciating. In the name of efficiency, toll-free “customer care” has eliminated any hope of maintaining an ongoing customer relationship with a real salesperson. As each new call goes to the “next available operator,” a promise made by one agent can be easily ignored by the next one. (Whether this nightmare was created by default or design doesn’t much matter – the effect is to eliminate many “customer care” problems through attrition.) You’re supposed to give up.

But there’s a simple way of turning this dastardly discontinuity in your favor: If you don’t get the response you want, just hang up and try again. Think of this as a kind of reverse Russian Roulette: you’re looking for the one “yes” in a chamber full of rounds marked “no” or “please try again later.”

We recently played this game successfully with a phone bill of our own. When our daughter embarked on a college semester abroad, our “10-cents-a-minute” provider suddenly found some fine print governing overseas calls. The bill for the first month – at $1 a minute – came to over $750. The first (and second through fifth) customer service rep explained there was “nothing they could do.” The sixth rep cheerfully agreed that we were eligible for a “courtesy credit” for the calls if we signed up for a “special 12-cent-a-minute” international plan. Problem solved. We’ve since tried this with several other toll-free customer lines with some success.

Of course, you’ll have to learn to like elevator music — or worse, the mind-numbing, repetitive cycle of ads for a company you are already firmly convinced you never want to do business with again. You may lose a few hours of your life to this pursuit. But if the amount in dispute is large enough, it will be time well spent.

Alas, if you’ve spent so many hours that you’re singing the company jingle in your dreams — and still haven’t resolved the problem — you may want to try Plan B. But there are several problems with legal action. First, many consumer promises are made verbally which, while it doesn’t make them any less binding, does make them much harder to prove. So wherever possible, get that promise in writing. (If you can't, tell the salesperson you'd like to record any verbal sales assurances for "quality assurance purposes.") Worse, unless the bill in dispute is huge, legal costs will burn through any financial benefit you’ll get from resolving the dispute in your favor.

That’s why we often suggest contacting the Consumer Affairs Department of your state Attorney General’s office to file a complaint. If you do, keep notes of your efforts to contact the company, along with any documented evidence of the company’s broken promise. Filing a complaint is no guarantee you’ll get satisfaction. But if enough consumers complain about the same company, that pattern of abuse makes each individual’s claim much stronger. And companies that actually care about trying to keep their customers happy would rather not accumulate a thick file of complaints with state consumer affairs regulators.

So hang in there. And if you don’t get the answer you want, hang up and try again.

I went to open a savings account at a local bank (Wells Fargo). Besides asking for name, address, SS number, they asked if I owned or rented and how long, my date of birth, who is my primary financial institution, my phone number, and the list of questions went on. When I asked why all these additional questions, they said the Patriot Act requires them to ask. My question to you is what does the Patriot Act require us to tell a bank when we want to open a savings account? Personally, I think the bank was just profiling me. I told them to forget it and stayed with my Credit Union.
         
Bernard W. -- Anchorage, Alaska

The correct answer is: both of the above.

As with many of the laws enacted by our Congress, the details of just what personal information a bank should – or can – collect when you open an account was left deliberately vague in the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, aka The Patriot Act. So the exact list of questions will vary from one bank to the next.

The purpose of the law, of course, was to make sure that the next guy who opens an account in your local bank is not a terrorist. While the 107th Congress wasn’t exactly sure how to do that, they wanted to make sure there was a law requiring it. So, thanks to a classic case of government buck-passing, you won’t find the list of required questions in the USA PATRIOT Act

Instead, the law passed the hot potato to the Secretary of the Treasury, telling him to set up “reasonable procedures” for financial institutions to use when they verify just who is opening an account, including name address and “other identifying information.” Under Section 326, the law also insisted the rules take into account “the various types of accounts maintained by various types of financial institutions, the various methods of opening accounts, and the various types of identifying information available.” The rules also let the Treasury Secretary “exempt any financial institution or type of account” if wanted to.

When the good folks down at Treasury took a look at the new law, they quickly realized that covering all the bases would require more than just name, address and ID number. For one thing, the list of “financial institutions” a terrorist can choose from these days is pretty long, including U.S. and foreign banks, credit unions, mutual funds, stock brokers, insurance agents, pawnbrokers, check cashers, casinos, money transfer companies, etc. A one-size-fits-all rule just wouldn’t work.

So the Treasury Dept passed the buck again: the regulations they came up with require banks (and other “financial institutions”) to set up a “Customer Identification Program,” or CIP, that is “appropriate given the bank's size, location, and type of business.” Under Section 103.121(b)(2)(i) of the regulations, the minimum list of information includes name, date of birth; address (both mailing address and residence) and an “identification number” which can be a Social Security number, a tax ID number, employee ID number, passport number and country of issuance; alien identification card number; or other government photo id.

But those are only guidelines. The burden is on the bank to demonstrate that they know you're not a terrorist. If you don’t have a drivers license or other photo id, for example, or if you open an account over the phone or the Internet, the bank is allowed to use “other methods of verification” to make sure they know who you are, including financial statements, credit reports, or databases of people who’ve passed bad checks.

The result is a cottage industry of lawyers and other “compliance professionals” who make sure that banks have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of the regulations. While it remains to be seen whether all this has slowed the spread of terrorism, it’s safe to say banks know a lot more about you than they did before the law was passed.

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