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CHASE HOME FINANCE: RABID WEASEL

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Our mortgage bank says we have to pay our next door neighbor's water bill.

Last month, we got a letter from Chase Home Finance stating that we were delinquent in our payments. So Chase paid our neighbor's water bill and established an escrow account into which it plans to collect and store such money as it says we owe--at that moment, a cool $82.91, but increasing as Chase adds its "expenditures" towards our actual taxes and water bills, which we have already paid in what is referred to in mortgage circles as "timely fashion."

We were not surprised. This is the third time-the third time that we know of-that Chase has tried to make us pay our neighbor's water bill.

We refinanced with Chase in 2004 at a rate that was, and still is, pretty good, not to mention that it was and still is a fixed rate mortgage. Perhaps it's the fixed rate thing that gets under Chase's corporate skin, because unlike any of the eight other banks who've held our mortgages over the years, Chase keeps trying to make us pay it more money than we owe. The vehicle for this petty larceny is escrow for tax and insurance payments which are, to put it politely, enhanced.

At first, we had no problem with paying our taxes and insurance through Chase. We've had the arrangement with other banks and none of them ever tried to filch more than we owed, or at least not this obviously. My wife and I share bill-paying and check-writing duties, so neither of us noticed the creep of our escrow payments, nor did we connect it with the regular letters from Chase requiring notification of insurance, which we duly sent along. In 2006 we realized something was amiss; our monthly escrow payment was huge. There were phone calls, some of a highly emotional nature, with the affectless warriors of Chase Customer Care. Eventually a polite lady called to tell us in silvery tones that there'd been a mistake, can you imagine, something about unacknowledged notices of coverage, and that we'd shortly receive a check for $4000 and change-funds, we gathered, Chase had been hanging onto for our own good. We allowed as how we'd like Chase to waive our escrow requirement, so we could pay our taxes and premiums ourselves, and the lady told us we could do that.

What she didn't say was "if you dare." To Chase, a home loan with an escrow waiver is an unexploited resource, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Since this is the third time in two years Chase has created tax delinquencies that don't exist, we know the drill: We faxed a note to Customer Care illuminating our "concerns," pointing out that our address is not the same as our neighbor's, the water account number is different, the houses are different, the mortgages are different-you know, we're different fucking people. We included copies of the receipts for all the timely tax payments we've made. We referred to, but did not include, the last letter we sent Chase about our neighbor's water bill, from December '09, but we didn't mention the one we sent on the same subject in October '08, as we didn't want to burden Customer Care with too much to think about, much less read. And we ended stirringly by requesting, insisting, demanding that this escrow grift cease immediately.

Reliably, Chase took our remonstrance in stride and ignored it. Our new payment coupon already has a healthy chunk of escrow added, for taxes we've already paid and which Chase claims to have paid too, or intends to pay.

The last time this happened, in 2008, we went through a telephone gauntlet, repeating the story endlessly, receiving assorted "work case numbers," which were never recognized by anyone we spoke with, and collecting the names of every Customer Care Representative we spoke to, which got confusing because they only offer first names. And we continue to pay our principle and interest on time. No response. Zilch.

Eventually we sent certified letters, return receipt requested, to assorted Chase departments-Customer Care, Tax, Escrow Removal-and personally to David B. Lowman, CEO of Chase Home Finance, and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, the mother ship. We made our case, included our documentation and declared that if we did not receive satisfaction we would file reports with the Attorney General's Office, the CAC, the Better Business Bureau and Santa.

Lowman's receipt didn't come back to us for three months, so we were not surprised to hear Dennis Kucinich snap at him for Chase's spectacular foot-dragging on mortgage modification. Yes, foot-dragging seems to be the Lowman Way, except last April, when he told Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee hearing that aggrieved Chase mortgage holders should come to him with their concerns, then hot-footed it the hell out of there when a group of them actually did.

Someone evidently read the one we sent to Dimon, because we got a call from an oberleutnant of the Executive Resolution Center (Orwellian, no?), who made it chillingly clear that the only way to get rid of the escrow was to pay it off. Could we find out if we're still paying for the neighbor's water? How about copies of the numerous delinquency alerts Chase claims to have sent us and we never received (maybe the neighbors did)? Not a chance.

Far be it from us to suggest that Mr. Dimon, a man the New York Times calls "a financial superstar" and Huffpo calls "The Most Dangerous Man in America," tells the troops to squeeze a few extra bucks out of non-risky mortgages. I mean, JP Morgan Chase controls 44% of the derivatives market, whatever that may be. $82.91 doesn't even qualify as chump change.

It's the principle of the thing, we suppose. Whether it's billions in dicey investments or just a few bucks of funny escrow, take a shot and if no one's the wiser, no one's the wiser.

It's very different from the attitude Matt Taibbi captured so brilliantly in his description of Goldman Sachs, the "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, etc." Chase Home Finance is less squid than weasel: a rabid weasel, wrapped around my house, pointy little claws relentlessly poking-behind the sofa cushions, in our wallets, next door on the neighbor's water meter-for any spare change or folding bills it can sweep into its fetid maw before someone shoos it away with a broom.

It is a busy weasel. We thought paying our neighbor's water bill was a mistake too stupid to be anything but honest, but it turns out Chase pulls this stuff all the time. At the ample Chase Home Finance section on the Complaints Board Website, there's a post from a guy Chase is escrowing for taxes on property he doesn't own. On the Chase Home Finance Sucks Facebook Page, we read of a man escrowed for taxes due (and paid) for the year before his mortgage was taken over by Chase.

The Los Angeles Better Business Bureau awards Chase Home Finance an F for reliability, which makes us think Chase really doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of it--which is exactly the attitude we would recommend to Chase if we were its therapist or mother. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, but it somehow is, that the same banks and bankers that thought big enough to drive the whole economy over a cliff also think--and behave--really, really small.

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: To swindle someone once may be regarded as a mistake; to swindle the same someone in the same way repeatedly looks like a business plan.

I'll be chronicling this episode of our ongoing struggle to pay Chase no more than we owe it on my blog, Joy Buzzer, where this is cross-posted. This time we're hoping to keep our postage expenditures down and to avoid hyperventilating on the phone. My prediction: they'll escrow us for David B. Lowman's water bill.