Friday, October 17, 2008


Like most of us, or what seems like most of us these days, I exist from pay check to pay check, except that my pay checks are Social Security checks that come via automatic deposit to my credit union which is two states away. I run perilously close to the amount that’s in there, so small glitches have big consequences. I round checks up to the nearest dollar to make a bit of a buffer. The only trouble with that is that I write very few checks. About six months ago I had an overdraft. It was only by a dollar or so but enough to trigger a $25 penalty from my credit union, which was new. I had no choice but to pay it, since they have all my money. I chalked it up to bad math skills and maybe ambiguous number writing. I was also chagrined to discover that my "senior citizen" checking covers overdrafts but only in the sense of paying them, then imposing the new fee, rather than refusing the debit.

Then it happened again. This time I took a much closer look, making worksheets on my computer and then analyzing. There is only one automatic deduction I allow, which is Netflix, because that’s the only way they operate. You can’t send them a check -- they have no location. Their deduction was close enough to the date of my Social Security deposit (determined by the week of the month in which one’s birthday falls) that sometimes it arrived when there was money but sometimes the deduction was taken a day or so ahead of the deposit when the amount was very low and other times it was taken a day or so after the deposit, when there was no problem. I did record the deduction in my check book but wasn’t paying enough attention to WHEN it was deducted, so didn’t notice that the two calendars were out of sync.

does have a phone number. A cheerful person answered and agreed with me that $50, the amount of my penalties so far, was too much for a $15 membership, but the only way to change the date of the deduction was to stop the membership until the date one wanted to the deduction to be on, then start back up. The computer software would deduct the payment on that monthly date. So I did that. But it suddenly became clear that the old days of a human being making “fair” decisions about when things were due and so on, was OVER.

But my lesson wasn’t learned yet. Like many others, I now realize that being in a capitalist country, regardless of safety nets, means being defined and controlled by money. The second big realization is that money is nothing but bookkeeping. And bookkeeping is like statistics: “numbers, numbers figured my way, and damned lies.” A lot of banks, credit unions, real estate brokers, stock marketeers and oil companies are playing a “Gotcha” bookkeeping game, imposing fees that amount to more than the purchases and announcing changes in the tiny print that comes in the little folder in your bill that’s among all the advertising. Exxon/Mobil is VERY good at this.

First, they broke off distribution with all the small independent gas stations in Montana, which meant that many went out of business. In some places a truck plaza with attached casino and cafe, fuel supplied by Exxon, is the only place to buy gas. These remaining emporia control the terms of everything for people who need jobs (curiously often not local people) as well as people who need gas. With the price of gas what it has been, most transactions are done by credit card, esp. the truckers who take on diesel as though they were ocean-going vessels. They have a special cashier and phone lines for communication to get huge amounts of money sent through Western Union.

Such places see ordinary gas buyers -- except for those tourists driving land yachts -- as largely pesky and likely to run off without paying. So suddenly the pumps could be set for a specific amount and one had to pay in advance. This is a pain in the butt because you have to estimate how much capacity and how much need you have. One cashier helpfully offered to hold my credit card while I filled my tank, but when I came back in, she had “misplaced” the card. I now only put in gas if I’m going somewhere and then think in terms of $20 trips versus $40 trips. I only make one $40 trip a month, for grocery basics.

But the real money-maker is Citibank (South Dakota) which sub-contracts the credit card billing. This creates a buffer with Exxon/Mobil which subcontracts the actual record-keeping to someone mysterious in Des Moines, IA. One hardly knows whom to sue. And the newest wrinkle of all is a little folder that came with my last bill and applies to the “family of companies controlled by Citigroup.” They include but are not limited to CitiFinancial, CityMortgage, Smith Barney and Primeria. They can affect not just your credit score (which some are now using when hiring) but also your insurance rates and terms, financing of your car, and so on. This teeny booklet tells me that unless I “choose” to limit disclosure, they can sell all my information. Such things are worth a lot of money to marketers and others. In summary, Exxon is buffering itself from its customers by delegating credit, “bundling” the debts, charging escalating financing fees, and imposing unreasonable late fees as well as selling information supposed to be private if not confidential.

In 2001 there was no partial payment option. One paid in full. My credit limit was $2,000 which remains unchanged. The monthly finance charge was 1.75000%. My most recent bill shows a finance charge of .05753% -- DAILY. Sounds small until you figure it out.

When the Valdez ran aground in Alaska, I canceled my Exxon card. This caused an onslaught of “oh please come back” mailings from the gas company. After years, I started up again. At some point in the interim, late fees began to be imposed, first $15 and then $20. Also, minimum payments began to be stipulated. I continued to pay in full last February and March. In April I triggered a late fee and the $2.00 finance charge. I couldn’t find a receipt in my cash register collection, so I ignored it. In May I charged gas twice ($55.99 and $52.20) and paid for the first, letting the other ride. The “minimum payment due” was $35.25. I didn’t notice that the announced Annual Percentage Rate was now 38.74% or that a second $15 late fee had been added

In June it showed that I’d paid the $17, though I still didn’t realize what it was for, thought maybe I’d lost the receipt. But now my balance was listed as $147.46 with a minimum payment of $41.99. Now the late fee had jumped to $20. In July I paid the $52.20 for the second tank of gas I’d charged in May. I thought -- though I didn’t check it -- that they had mistakenly posted my payment as a debit. There was no mistake, just a skewed version of what was happening. In September the total owed was listed as $115.47 though there were no new charges. This was the total of only late fees. (Another $20 late fee was added.) I’m paying late fees on late fees. From here on Exxon is not making ANY money by selling me gas. They, of course, are threatening me with a collection agency.

So I called the number you’re supposed to call. Once I interviewed for one of these jobs. The person (usually a woman, but often a black or immigrant) sits in a room of little booths, supervised by someone who can listen in at will. The job I was considered for was to talk to people who wanted to know why their department store revolving credit account had an item listed as “insurance” when they had no memory of asking for insurance. The job of the person who answered the phone was to keep them from dropping this “death or dismemberment insurance” by hinting at all the gruesome things that might happen to a person and how awful it would be to have one’s sofa repossessed at that very moment. The pay was minimal, but one got “points” meaning extra money for getting the caller to leave the optional insurance on their bill, for making the call short, and so on.

The person who answered, giving me a fake first name, told me her computer only went back to March so she couldn’t answer all my questions, that she could give me an automatic $20 “courtesy” (i.e. “kwitcherbitchin’”) credit, and from there on tipped me to another angle. I complained that my payments were posted late so that they would trigger a late charge. She wanted me to go to automatic deductions -- just give Citibank South Dakota access to my banking account and all would be swell. And then they can put that on their list of data to be sold.

As Jack Benny famously said, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” But I’m thinking along the lines of the international banking structure shakeup, which would be an excellent time to look into this constant nibbling at pocketbooks. Or maybe just small claims court. What Exxon is charging me for being late a few days now amounts to more than ten percent of my monthly income. What’s really in the balance is my growing hatred and contempt for Exxon. What’s wrong with just nationalizing gas companies? Like banks. It’s better than being owned by a corporation. What ever happened to the sin of usury that now it's become legal?

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