Monday, November 26, 2012

Regional Finance, Small Victories

Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins isn't the only one having financial problems. A lot of the rest of us are too and unlike Mayor Perkins who will still have $Millions of Dollars in assets after the bank he used to work for finishes with the repossession of the one property the Mayor chooses not to pay for and puts his teenage daughter on the street, a lot of Greensboro's residents are in real financial jams and not living in overpriced luxury condos Downtown.

I've wanted to tell this story for a while but I wanted to see how it played out. It's no secret to most that physical and mental health issues have devastated me financially. The fact that I'm without property and assets now is what allows me to engage in this modern form of bloodless Tyrannicide.

Back in May of 2012 after having been out of work with no income since November of 2010 I was sitting alone in my mother's home while my mother was away visiting her sister in Ohio. As there was food in the house I was in no danger of starving but not having had a single dime in my pockets for weeks was weighing heavily on my already depressed mind. May was before I finally found a shrink who would prescribe a medication that finally seems to work for me.

That said, I knew all along what I was doing was a mistake.

A check came in the mail that morning for $1000.oo from a loan company in South Carolina. It wasn't Regional Finance but some other name I'd never heard of and can't remember. The check was written to me. I thought it strange as years of unpaid medical bills have ruined my credit and I was certain that I had not applied for any loans. I mean, why bother when I know I'm not going to get the loan, right? It's not like I hadn't tried to pay down the medical bills-- direct deposit emptied my checking account every month for years and years until I had no more money to replenish the funds.

I sat at Momma's kitchen table and looked at the check for hours. The 34% interest rate would have been enough to send the lender to the Federal Penitentiary 30 years ago but today it's legal. Several times I started to tear the check into pieces and throw it away but in the end I took a gamble hoping my Disability would come in before the note was due.

I went to Wells Fargo where my mother and I have a joint checking account. But I didn't go to a Wells Fargo branch I'd ever been to before because frankly I was expecting to be laughed at or worse and didn't want to be embarrassed in front of people who know me. While the account is in mine and my mother's name I've no idea how much money is in the account as I only write checks on it at Momma's request. After all, it is all her money. Momma set the account up in this way so that I can more easily take care of things if she is unable. There are also 3 other joint checking accounts in each of my 3 brothers names should she be with one of them instead of me in an emergency. As for the ATM cards-- I'm told she has them all but I've never seen them.

I walked to the teller, presented her the check and asked to cash it. "Do you have an account with us?" she asked.

"I do," I replied still believing I had wasted a trip.

She took the check from me, had me sign it on the back and counted out $1000 in $20 Dollar bills without ever asking for an account number, address or identification. North Carolina state law requires that scrap metal recyclers scan a copy of your ID into their computer before they pay you a single Dollar bill but a bank can cash a Thousand Dollar check for a complete stranger without ID or account number. Seems about right.

I walked out of the bank in shock. And angry! What if someone had stolen that check from my mailbox? Could it be those checks have come to my mailbox before, been stolen and cashed without my knowing it? Probably not but I wondered just the same.

About a week and a half later I got a letter from Regional Finance, 2403 Battleground Avenue, Suite 4, Greensboro, North Carolina, 27408. I started to throw it in the recycling can right away without opening it as I'd never before done business with Regional Finance and I figured they were just trying to sell me on a loan I wouldn't qualify for or a credit card I can't afford. But something in the back of my mind told me I should open it up. Low and behold, the company who loaned me the $1000 was no longer the South Carolina company whose name I can't remember and who I had never before heard of but in-fact it was Regional Finance. And with that news was another surprise.

Now remember this next part because while its small it is important. In that letter was notification that I had borrowed not $1000 as the check was written for but $1025 with no explanation as to how they came up with the other $25. Was $25 all the interest I would be paying on a $1000 loan? Somehow that seemed too good to be true.

Now like I wrote before: this is my fault. Despite my poor emotional and mental state at the time I knew I was taking a risk, a gamble that might not pay off and if life has taught me anything it's to never bet on scared money. And as scared money so often does, my Disability has yet to come in and I lost the bet. It always was and remains my intention to repay the loan it's just not going to happen as quickly as I had hoped and Regional Finance had planned when they gambled and mailed an unsolicited check for $1000 to a complete stranger whose credit they never checked.

Frankly I don't feel sorry for Regional Finance over all the people who cash those checks with no intentions of ever paying back the loans. Regional Finance is asking for it. But if I live long enough I will pay them back. Not because I'm worried about my credit rating but just because I'm in the habit of paying my debts. Unlike the Mayor of Greensboro, I paid my child support even though it did mean going without new cars and overpriced Downtown condos.

This morning at 9:00 AM I found myself in Guilford County Small Claims Court, Courtroom 210 of the Guilford County Courthouse. My mind was made up not to fight the judgement as I do owe the money but the matter of that $25 discrepancy still bugged me.

I chatted with several people in the courtroom before the magistrate arrived. With lines so long court always starts late these days. Several cases were called, dismissed, continued, judged and otherwise concluded before the magistrate called the representative from Regional Finance to come to the front of the courtroom. The first several cases Regional Finance brought to the court were no shows, meaning the defendants didn't appear in court and went quickly always in the favor of Regional Finance. The $25 fee did come up but the magistrate didn't question it.

But the looks on the faces of several of the people in the room who were there on behalf of other finance companies told me exactly what I needed to know.

I'll admit, I was a wreck. Having run out of my mood stabilizer on Friday and unable to get it refilled before going to court this morning I was on the ragged edge. Try as I might, I spoke too loud, sometimes out of turn and if I didn't seem confused to the people in that courtroom then I did better than I thought I was doing for I feared that at any second I was going to fall apart just as I've done so many times before. My hands were shaking, my feet, my legs, they were shaking too, not because I was scared but because I was so damned angry at what I had just witnessed take place in a North Carolina courtroom. I wanted to tear people limb from limb and feared I was very close to doing so.

But somehow, I stayed just below that line. I successfully argued how the $25 after the fact fee was unfair and suggested that it might even be illegal but admitted I couldn't be sure. I put the plaintiff on the spot. I never tried for a moment to get out of paying back the loan, court costs, late charges, etc, etc, etc... but while I really didn't give a shit about that $25 for myself I told the magistrate that I believed it was unfair to all the other people who had cashed those checks in the mail to have been forced to pay $25 more than the amount of the check when it wasn't disclosed to us until after it was too late and the money was most likely already spent.

In the end the magistrate agreed with me that the $25 charge after the fact was unfair. He removed it from my bill and said he would remove it from the bills of all the others Regional Finance brought to his court. It was a small victory with potentially big consequences.

You see, while I can't give you legal advice I think this is what is commonly called a precedent. And if I'm right, everyone who has ever paid that $25 fee to Regional Finance-- even those of you who paid off your loans and never went to court are due a $25 refund plus interest and possibly late fees from Regional Finance. This could be thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands all over the Southeastern United States. The case should be Regional Finance vs. William Jones, November 26, 2012, Guilford County, North Carolina, Small Claims Court.

Of course, not being a lawyer I guess it's possible that decisions made in small claims courts aren't considered precedents but before I paid that $25 fee I'd look into it.

But things didn't end there. As I walked out of the court room a woman I'd never met before this morning handed me some cash. I quickly thanked her, walked into the hall outside the courtroom, set down on the floor and cried for the next half hour in the midst of another nervous breakdown. I had figured out from chatting and listening before court began that she too worked for a finance company and that she had 3 children at home. I counted the money, $40. No one has ever just handed me money out of the blue before and $40... I decided I should give it back to her.

I went back into the courtroom and found a seat all the way at the back. A few minutes later the magistrate called her. To my surprise, she was the one who was in trouble. She was a partner in a locally owned mortgage company that is currently going out of business. She has 3 children, is loosing her business and just handed me $40, I thought, I have to give her this money back.

The magistrate ruled against her but did reduce some of the charges as being unwarranted. I tried to give her the money back but she just wouldn't take it. But I knew I couldn't keep it. I asked her name and told her mine, shook hands and slowly walked away.

From the courthouse I went to pick up my mood stabilizer. While I was there a young man and his father were there to pick up a prescription but Guilford County Mental Health only takes cash or checks and all his father had was a credit card. Despite his protests I gave his son the $3 he needed to pay for his prescription and told the man to give the $3 to someone who needs it. Then I picked up my own prescription, took my first dose since Friday and sat down to wait for it to start working.

Then I drove to Regional Finance, walked in and paid them the same $40 the angel gave me saying, "A woman gave me $40 as I walked out of the courtroom. I fear it might be a long time before I have money again so here goes."

Seems their boss had already returned from court, told them about what happened and left... angry.

I've got $3 in my wallet and it feels like a Million.