The nation's largest savings and loan, Washington Mutual, is buying credit-card issuer Providian Financial for about $6.45 billion. The deal gives WaMu a credit card business, which it now lacks, and gives it access to Providian's 9.4 million customers.
Providian, which targets lower-income consumers and those with subpar credit ratings, is the frequent target of consumer complaints alleging advance fees, late posting of payments, unauthorized transfers and other unseemly pratices.
In 2000, Providian agreed to reimburse its customers about $300 million in a settlement with the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. Later that year, it agreed to pay $105 million to settle a series of class-action consumer lawsuits.
What about Washington Mutual? Check out its Web site and you'll find endless testimonials to its "civic responsibility" and "community involvement," their legions of employees ("WaMulians") who love their work, and perform it to the highest standards of customer satisfaction. With assets totaling $319 billion and 2,400 offices providing a wide range of products across America, the Seattle-based firm portrays itself as the pinnacle of banking success stories.
But the complaints of ConsumerAffairs.com's readers tell a very different story. Washington Mutual customers complain of "bait and switch" lending, failures to process mortgages or close sales, and substandard customer service.
"These giant companies are eating up the American Dream and owning it while kicking people out on the streets!" exclaimed one exasperated customer.
Owning one's own home has never been easier or more advantageous, thanks to incredibly low interest rates. However, as many dismayed customers found when dealing with Washington Mutual, even the most attractive offers can turn to ruin if the company fails to fulfill its end of the bargain.
Daryl M., of Mineral Wells, Texas, purchased his mortgage through Fleet before the company was bought by Washington Mutual. He was shocked to find that Washington Mutual had overpaid his property taxes for 2002. Rather than notify him of the error, it increased his monthly payments from $850 to $1450 a month.
Even after returning his $2,200 tax refund to WaMu and asking that it be placed in escrow, the company continued to charge him late fees and turned a deaf ear to his concerns. "[R]ight now I am facing bankruptcy because I have other debts that I can no longer pay because of their screw-up. To this day they will not admit their mistake or offer an apology."
Celeste H., of Lithonia, GA, was another former Fleet customer who found herself at the mercy of WaMu's "shell game" financing. WaMu claimed she was putting too much into escrow, and refunded her money, then proceeded to raise her monthly payments to $1,000.
"Because I knew I was not going to be able to afford that amount every month, I did my own investigation; I saw they overpaid my property taxes. I spoke with my county and they informed me they had sent them a refund for the overpayment a month ago. I inquired about this to WAMU and they claimed they did not receive a refund. I had to call and get a check number and provide it to them."
Celeste has since made her full payment and wants to find another loan service to refinance with, but cannot because she fell behind on other payments while straightening out the WaMu mess.
A frequent consumer complaint centers on WaMu's inability to process documents or provide information in a timely fashion for mortgages and loans. Roger S. of Fort Washington, MD, a disabled Air Force veteran, pleaded with WaMu to amortize his loan in order to reduce the monthly payment and save money for medical bills.
"Now as of January 21, 2005 I have been trying to pay in-full my mortgage to Washington Mutual Home Loan [They have] been receiving my payments for over 23 months. After several phone calls and no consistent Washington Mutual Home Loan personnel or managers to speak with, the Washington Mutual Home loan phone representative could not validate my payment."
When Roger tried to make his payments in full and receive the lien, Washington Mutual continually returned his money and could not verify if the checks had been cashed or not.
"I submitted my payoff letter and payment for the 3rd time. After being promised my January 07, 2005 payoff date and amount would be honored, it has now been reversed and now I have to pay an additional $5K."
This is but one of a torrent of complaints regarding Washington Mutual's apparent inability to process even the most routine mortgage paperwork.
Nor are WaMu's banking services free of risk. Customers report tales of checks not being cleared, refusing to honor payments, and constant failure to process paperwork for any sort of transaction.
Melanie B., of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was unable to receive her new checks from her Washington Mutual Account when she moved from California, so she asked the bank to put stops on the checks until she received them. Washington Mutual instead placed stops on checks she had previously written to pay her bills, causing them to be returned and billing her for surcharges and late fees.
Renae of Pompano Beach, Florida, started noticing constant fees and charges on her statement for "anything and everything", despite making regular deposits to the account. "At one point, we had been charged almost $400.00 in over draft fees, when there was money in the checking account and we also had overdraft protection for any needed funds to be withdrawn from our savings."
Jennifer H. of Winnetka, Calif., opened her bank statement from Washington Mutual in September of 2004, only to find that a check she had written had returned and a $22 overdraft fee assigned to it, despite her having ample funds in her account to pay for the transaction. She called Washington Mutual's customer service, who promised they would look into the matter within 5 business days.
"My paycheck was direct deposit on September 17. I checked my account on September 18, and there were 3 more charges on there. I called the 800# again and was told a total of 4 checks were returned and two transactions were put through for a total of 6 $22.00 charges."
After repeated attempts to get an explanation, Jennifer ended up owing $132 in overdraft fees, for no reason and with no attempt by WaMu to correct the problem or pay her money back.
A common thread running through most WaMu complaints is the inability to contact anyone who can solve a customer's problem, or to verify that documents have been received or sent.
In June of 2004, James V. of Richmond, TX found himself in foreclosure from Washington Mutual, despite making a substantial payment to his account, simply because they did not process the check. Leslie of Boca Raton, Florida, deposited several checks into her new WaMu bank account, only to find the bank branch manager was choosing to hold her paychecks from clearance for "9 to 11 daysthey are making my account seem as if it have a negative balance, when it does not."
Customers like Jack A., of Spring Hill, Florida, often encounter Washington Mutual's unwillingness to modify any of their payment plans, until they are more than 30 days late -- thus putting them into collections, adding late fees, etc.
"I will fall behind on my mortgage payments and have this on my credit rating as well as all extra fees to get my loan caught up. This could have been avoided if the greed of this company was not so great."
A similar circumstance befell Barry K. of Saline, Michigan. Himself a professional realtor, Barry has repeatedly lost business when dealing with WaMu due to their requested payoff dates of "7 to 10 business daysmost other banks [take] 1 hour. In the latest fiasco, we have waited 3 weeks for a mortgage payoffstill no luck."
It is no exaggeration to say that this is but a small sampling of the complaints received about Washington Mutual. Their consistent record of abusive business practices, financial mismanagement, and poor customer service has literally left many consumers quaking in fear at the prospect of dealing with them.
In the words of one distressed customer, "Economically, they are burying me with late fees and related expenses, not to mention I cannot get any products or services on credit because Washington Mutual has ruined my credit rating. I have been through three years of hell trying to communicate with these people. I go to bed worrying if they will attempt foreclosure on me again."