Monday, May 26, 2008

How Your Bank Can Ruin Your Vacation As Commerce Bank Did Ours

My Commerce Bank account is a small checking account I had set up a couple of years ago to handle my father’s bills. When my father passed away last year, I maintained this account and from time to time over the past year I would cash some checks and did little else. I would access it online to see my interest on the account and would receive their paper statements each month.

I was getting ready to visit Budapest, Vienna and Prague on an extensive business/vacation trip and decided my best rates on foreign currencies would be had using my ATM card in each country I visited. My wife insisted this was the best way to handle this and not to take much US currency because we wouldn’t need it. I of course always feel a bit uncomfortable not taking cash with me, but conceded to her wishes.

I decided to make an additional deposit to my Commerce Bank (America's Most Convenient Bank) account prior to leaving and added another $575 to the account at the drive through window. When I made the deposit the teller told me that the account was flagged inactive. I asked her why and she said because of the lack of activity on the account this past year. She said it wasn’t a problem and she would make sure it was activated. She also gave me the banks phone number to call later in the day to make sure it was done. I called and was told that the deposit I made would reactivate the account and I shouldn't be concerned.

I explained, over the phone, that I was going to Europe and didn’t want to have any problems since this was my main “Cash” card and was assured the account was in good standing now that I made the deposit. My ATM card had an expiration date of 2009, so I thought that was OK too. Never did I realize that the bank also canceled my ATM card without any notification in writing or by phone, leaving me to think this card was still active.

Now lets go back to our arrival after a less then wonderful two separate flights totaling 11 hours. We were tired after this long trip and it was about 4 AM our time when we arrived in Budapest. At the Budapest baggage claim we saw a convenient OTP Bank ATM and attempted to use it. Of course the menu was in Hungarian, but we did see a button for English and we began the process. I put my Commerce ATM card in to the machine, put in my pin number and then attempted to withdraw some “Forint’s” Hungarian dollars from the machine. An error message came up, but it was in Hungarian, not English and I had no idea what was happening.

I attempted to cancel the transaction, but my card was not returned.

 I was fortunate to find a very nice Hungarian man, Arpad Halasz, who spoke English and came to my aid. He promptly called the ATM’s help number and although I wasn’t sure what he was saying to the rep on the other side, I could see he was getting agitated. He told me that their might have been a malfunction of the machine and I should phone my bank, have them cancel the card. He again tried to explain that I was from the United States, needed the card to obtain funds while in their country and had no way to call my bank back in the states. After a while, the "friendly" bank operator simply hung up on him after refusing to send a service technician to retrieve my card.

Now what do we do. We are in a foreign non-English speaking country, very little cash and no one to help us retrieve my Commerce card. The gentleman who helped us decided to visit the branch of this bank which was at the other end of the Airport and demand that they help me out of this mess, so off we went.

The clerk at the branch didn't seem to want to help me either, until I handed him one of my business cards and showed him my Press ID, and explained I was invited to his country by the Czech Airlines to write a review of my trip and if he refused to help me I would surely include the story of his bank in that review. He started to make calls and I thanked the man that had helped me get to the bank. I gave the teller a copy of my Commerce ATM card which I had made along with all my other credit cards, and documents in my wallet. Being a traveler and a journalist, I like to do this in the event I lose my wallet or it is taken from me by one of the many pick pockets in some of the countries we have visited.

After about 40 minutes he put me on the phone with one of his bank reps who spoke English and she advised me that the reason my card was taken was because my bank, the Commerce Bank had ordered them to do so. Not only was I shocked by this, but I was furious with my bank. I knew this had to be the real story because of the entire "Inactive Account" incident at the bank before I left the U.S.

So without much money in my wallet and over 2 hours wasted and frustrated I rejoined my wife who was sitting in the baggage claim area all this time not knowing what had happened to me. We exchanged $100 cash that I had for the Hungarian currency and was able to charge our cab fare, so we had enough to get to our hotel.

Our options now were to either charge everything we could, take some cash advances from our credit card or limit our cash spending to the $300 we took on our trip. Of course doing this on a 10 day European work assignment was going to be very hard indeed. We were fortunate that most of the major costs were already paid for or would be paid using our credit cards. Many of the other items like museum entry fees, public transportation, sight seeing buses, boats, purchases of souvenirs we wanted to bring home, might be a problem for us, but we were intent on making this work.

Because this trip was for my company and I was writing an extensive review of these three countries I was able to meet with various companies, museum public relations or marketing personnel and obtain media or complimentary press access to their services or attractions. This helped us keep our cash needs down and enabled us to complete our trip, which could have been a major disaster because of my bank. The few hundred in cash, the press access we had, the favors afforded us by the generous people at the many museums and attractions we visited helped us make our meager cash budget stretch a great deal more then if we weren't a member of the media.

We did have to waste a lot of our time finding the proper people at each and every company we needed to visit or use their services and this cut into our trip and also wasted many hours of our time. The effort involved in finding the public relations managers in a foreign country and then making a presentation and showing our work to them for free access was almost embarrassing at times, but we had to do it because of my banks screw up.

In one case it took almost two hours to locate the public relations director of the Jewish Museum in Prague and then we had to pass all their security to visit her in her offices. Each and every day became a challenge for us because of Commerce Bank and I began to write this article in Budapest knowing that I would visit their branch, find out why they did what they did and ask why in all this time, they never had the decency to contact me or let me know they were going to cancel my account and ATM card.

Not only was their actions improper, unprofessional and certainly not friendly, but it has cost me and my wife more then just a simple inconvenience on what was going to be a wonderful trip to Europe that we looked forward to for some time.

Each night as I lay in bed, I kept thinking of what my friendly bank did to us. They ruined our trip, wasted many hours of our time and caused us untold stress in having to deal with our lack of cash in three foreign countries where English is not the language of choice.

As my anger took the better of me, I kept asking myself, "What should I do? On my return to the US" Should I close my account and call it a day? Should I contact some of my friends in the media and become a story on how a bank can mess ones life up, as Commerce did to us? Or should I write about the bank on my blog and my web site and then if necessary take additional legal action? After all only a few weeks ago we saw a case that made us laugh a bit. Apparently a man had to sit in the lavatory on a Jet Blue flight for 2 hours, for reasons that were not very clear. He hired an attorney, got on the news with his story and I understand is now suing the airline for millions of dollars.

I decided to visit my branch and see what they had to say and then make my decision. I can assure you all that with my 18 years as owner and president of International Press Association and the many articles I have written about companies and governments not getting it right plus my heavily read blog "" the Commerce Bank might want to review how they do business and make changes in their procedures so others won't find themselves in a foreign country with no money and no one to speak to.

Shame on You Commerce Bank, you let us down, but I can assure my readers that I will make sure that Commerce understands the importance of notifying their customers of any change in their accounts. It is hard to believe in this day and age of identity theft and high bank account security that they wouldn't do this as normal policy.

I will report back to my readers as soon as I can and let you know how this bank handles this horrid situation...or simply watch your local news for this story, I am sure it will be better then the guy being put in an airlines lavatory for 2 hours, his story pales by comparison to mine.

Initial Contact With Commerce Bank - May 28, 2008

Commerce Bank's Branch Manager Robert Jordan of the Hazlet, NJ branch, called me today to apologize for what had happened. His explanation was that the teller should have told me that my ATM might have been deactivated as well. She should have also told me to see one of their supervisors, regarding my account. Although she did give me the phone number of the bank to call and check on the status, this may not have been enough. I think the rep I spoke to when I did call, should have been the one to alert me that my card might now also be inactive. Since she was the one I called to make sure everything was in good order, it was her job to ask if I had an ATM card and to make sure it was active.

When I pressed Mr. Jordan about the banks policies regarding the cancellation of an ATM card and deactivation of an account without notifying the customer of these actions he told me he couldn't comment on bank policies. I explained that my credit card companies have all called me in the past when the see any suspicious activities on my account. This is the reason I called all of them prior to my trip to have them put a notation on my file that I would be in Europe for the 10 days and not to be concerned if any charges came in during that period of time.

The only card I didn't call was the Commerce Bank, thinking that my deposit and conversations with them was enough to make sure the account was now activated and working properly.

Mr. Jordan asked me to write a letter to the bank to explain my situation because I would not simply accept an apology or a coupon for a free dinner at a local restaurant. I believe the bank has to offer proper compensation and by doing so, it may motivate them to make the changes necessary in their policies regarding proper notification on any changes in ones account. This will help to ensure that their other customers won't find themselves in a similar situation as ours.

It is unfortunate, that individuals must take radical and even legal steps to make some companies realize that they have to try harder. My acceptance of a free mail or a verbal apology might be enough for some, but I believe that some companies have to be hit in the pocket before they take a situation seriously. By doing so, the problem is then elevated to the people at a company that can make a policy change. Commerce Bank, a bank that claims they are "America's Most Convenient Bank" proved that they must make these changes in their policy and notify their customers of any change in an accounts status in order to maintain this reputation.

At this point, I have already contacted one local newspaper and one television station about this situation and both have an expressed an interest in telling my story to their viewers and readers. This is an option I may decide to exercise if the bank doesn't come through with what I consider a legitimate offer of compensation.

One final note, Mr. Jordan had stated that the bank would have reactivated my card if I had called them from Hungary or would have issued a new one and sent it to me overnight. When we arrived in Budapest it was 10:00 AM there time and 4:00 AM EST. I am not sure if we attempted to call the toll free Commerce Bank number on the back of our card, we would have been able to get any help. There was also no way for us to get the OTP bank to return my card and open the ATM machine. This card I was told, would be destroyed during a normal service call. Frankly, we were in a state of panic and didn't even know how to make a call to the United States from Hungary.

Even if we had reached Commerce and they offered to send a new card overnight we might not have been able to receive it. We were only going to be in each of the three countries we visited for two days or 3 nights. This in itself could have created a problem if a new card was sent to us. Even if we had them send it to our next hotel and asked them to indicate they should "hold for arrival", on the package, in our minds, there would be a security risk in doing so.

We decided to try to make it work without the ATM card and hope for the best. Our last option of course would be to take a cash advance on our credit cards, but this was not necessary since we were able to charge as much as we did, gain complimentary admissions and services because of my press affiliation and use the small amount of cash we did take with us.

We have now learned another valuable lesson, don't depend on your bank cards and take enough cash with you on any trip. Something could go wrong and you need to have a back up plan if it does.

Follow-Up Dated June 9, 2008

The branch manager requested I send him a letter so he could forward it to the proper personnel in his company to handle this situation. I wrote the letter, copied the blog and delivered it in person to the branch. I later found out instead of sending it to their customer relations department he forwarded it to their corporate staff counsel Mr. Christoper Tucci. Since I had not received any replies from them in over a week, I sent an email to Mr. Jordan to find out what our progress was and was answered by Mr. Tucci who sent me an email copy of his letter.

I want to share this with all my readers, because it simply confirms what I and the many others have been saying in so many blogs and articles on the net, Commerce Bank has lost its heart and forgot their primary mission.

Please read this letter and you be the judge if this is how you would handle an upset depositors complaint. This letter has not been changed in any way and is the same in the email form as it was the written letter I received in the mail today.

Subject: Commerce Bank, N.A. relationship
Date: June 9, 2008 2:46:29 PM EDT

Mr. Rapoport -

Below, please find a letter attached that was mailed to your attention last
week. For the purposes of the account closing, we can use today's date as
notice to you of the ten (10) day provision. Thank you for your
anticipated cooperation.

(See attached file: Rapoport response.doc)

Christopher J. Tucci, Counsel
TD BANK, N.A. Legal Dept.
1701 Route 70 East
Cherry Hill, NJ 08034
AIM # 01-010-05-00
856.470.2241 direct
856.874.2423 facsimile

May 30, 2008

Leonard L. Rapoport
15 Carlow Way
Hazlet, NJ 07730

Re: Commerce Bank, N.A. account no.: 7861322464

Dear Mr. Rapoport:

Commerce Bank, N.A. (“Commerce”) is in receipt of your May 28, 2008 correspondence to Mr. Robert Jordan of our Hazlet store. After a review of your allegations, we must respectfully decline to reimburse you for any costs or fees associated with your recent trip to Europe. It is the long-standing policy of financial institutions to place accounts with no activity on “inactive” status to protect their customers. In addition, any access device connected with that account would also be placed on “inactive” status in that situation to protect the customer.

As Mr. Jordan explained, a simple phone call to Commerce would have rectified the situation after your card was captured in a foreign ATM machine. You have refused nominal reimbursement from Mr. Jordan and instead, started a series of harassing activities towards Commerce employees. We must ask that you immediately cease and desist this behavior and insist that you close your Commerce checking account referenced above. If the account is not closed within ten (10) business days from the date of this correspondence, Commerce will close the account and mail you the remaining funds.

Commerce views your demands of financial compensation within five (5) days, with the result of noncompliance being your publishing this situation to the “media” a very serious matter. Please be advised that Commerce must comply with all Federal and State regulations, as well as, regulatory requirements regarding these types of demands.

Commerce reserves all legal and equitable rights available to it under your deposit contract with us and any applicable Federal and State laws. Please be advised that any libelous statements made concerning Commerce or its employees will be considered actionable by Commerce and this matter will be forwarded immediately to outside counsel for Commerce to file an immediate lawsuit against any party associated with those comments. Please be guided accordingly.

Very truly yours,

Christopher J. Tucci

I have responded to this email and frankly at this point, it appears that I must turn this over to my attorney for further action. I have two of the IPA researchers working on a story to understand a consumers rights regarding the banking industry and will be writing a full article on our other web site. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, you may want to see some other postings regarding Commerce Bank that may or may not confirm my findings.

I am sure if you simply googled any banks name you would find negative postings about each one of them, but if you read between the lines, you will see the same thing coming up over and over again. This bank has lost their way and has lost their heart.

Update - June 25, 2008

As you can see, they decided to close my account and mail me the above check.  I had already made the decision to do so and had pulled most of the funds out of this bank.  I wanted to see if in fact they would follow through on their threat, which they did.

I have decided not to pursue any legal course of action at this time. I have been too busy to deal with this now, but I do have options open should I decide to take any action at a later date.

This bank deserves the poor reviews they have been getting.  Any company that can't deal with a situation like mine in a proper manner does not deserve the loyalty of their customers.  From a bank with a heart, this bank has now become a bank without any clear direction and it is a shame.

I would advise all of my readers of this blog to simply question the rules and regulations of their banks to make sure this doesn't happen to you.

Please visit my web site to read my review and view my photos of my trip to Budapest, Vienna and Prague. 

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