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The Arrogance of "Too Big to Fail"

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Barbados-- I should say up front, I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of Chase, one of the small group of so-called "too big to fail" banks that got bailed out with a combination of taxpayers' money and sweet deal federal interest rates. (Despite this, the New York Times reports JPMorgan Chase, along with the other "too big to fail" financial institutions, still plans on dishing out to its top employees and leadership billions in bonus money and/or stocks).

I sort of inherited Chase when it swallowed whole Washington Mutual, which slit its own throat because of its greed in subprime mortgage lending.

I firmly believe that the arrogance clearly manifest at the top of these financial monsters drips down to many of the employees at the lower rungs. I cite what happened to me this past weekend on a trip from Los Angeles to Barbados as just one, small example:

I have learned from experience that, when traveling out of the country, it is generally a good practice to alert one's bank of your whereabouts to avoid their automatic fraud programs from blocking the use of your credit or debit card once they pick up transactions made from a foreign land. This is a good thing. It helps prevent the fraudulent use of bank cards, a growing industry in and of itself.

By alerting your bank in advance of your travel plans, a "travel alert" can usually be placed on your account telling the bank, in effect, it is OK to process any bank card activity it picks up from--say--London, because you have already told them that you are in that city.

When Washington Mutual was my bank, it was possible to reach an agent 24/7 to let them know your travel plans. But Chase, many many time bigger than WAMU ever was, apparently only has its customer care agents available from 7am to 9pm.

Because of this, I was unable to talk with anyone at Chase to alert them to my travel plans on the day I left L.A. for Barbados, a long flight with a stopover in Miami. It had to wait till I arrived in Barbados.

But when I finally reached a Chase agent, she told me that it would take 24 hours (or maybe more) for the alert to be processed and, therefore, the use of my card would be totally blocked for that period of time!

When I protested that this didn't make sense--that I was the one asking for the alert so that I might be able to use my card (and had answered several security questions to prove that it was, in fact, me on the phone) she snapped back that, "well, that's your problem; you should have taken care of this before you left!"

I tried to tell her, calmly at first, that I, in fact, tried to take care of all this before I left, but was unable to because of the apparently shortened hours that Chase had its agents available. I say try because she kept insisting like a mantra that this was my problem and not Chase's and that there was simply nothing she could do about it. I asked to speak with her supervisor. I told her I was on an expensive long distance call from another country. She said that it would "take some time, maybe many minutes" before she could get a supervisor on the phone. I told her I would wait. But instead of putting me on hold for the supervisor, she, instead, switched me right back to the initial calling queue where I had to punch in what seemed like a zillion buttons just to be reconnected to yet another agent.

The second agent was no more helpful. She, too, said a variation of "well, sir, that's your problem" or words to that effect, and almost hung up on me. But this time, I began shouting at her over the phone, which did not go over well with the security folks at the customs area of the airport in Barbados. But it did force her to actually connect me to the Chase fraud division.

After explaining to the agent at that department what had happened, he profusely apologized to me. He said that the fraud department is actually in operation 24/7 (unlike the normal customer care department) and, had I had that particular number, I could have taken care of this issue anytime of the day or night.

But that magic number is, of course, nowhere to be found on my card, nor was it given out in the recorded message I got on the phone.

Nevertheless, he was able to unblock my card so that I could use it right away, while placing that important travel alert on it for future reference. What's more, he informed me that the other two agents would have, or should have, known this and taken care of the issue in minutes!

I am a virtual prisoner of Chase (personal and business checking, savings, credit), making it difficult to yank my money and put it into a smaller, community oriented bank that is too small and humble to be arrogant.

Still, I should! As a customer of Chase, I think I am too big to be failed!

Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time To Think-The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle." He has covered police and politics in Los Angeles since 1995 and is a regular contributor of investigative reporting to KNX 1070 Newsradio