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Bailed-out banks should cut service members some slack

Brian Roach missed two payments on his Bank of America card while fighting in Afghanistan. Fixing his credit score should have been easier.

November 12, 2010|David Lazarus
  • Brian Roach, 40, of Yorba Linda served in Marines for four years after high school and joined the Navy Reserve after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Brian Roach, 40, of Yorba Linda served in Marines for four years after high… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Brian Roach missed a couple of credit card payments while helping battle the Taliban in Afghanistan last year. Since then, he's been locked in combat with Bank of America.

And getting nowhere.

"The bank is saying that policy is policy," Yorba Linda resident Roach, 40, told me. "They don't seem to care about the people who are making sacrifices and putting their lives on the line in a time of war."

Actually, they do. But what Roach and other service members need to know is that legal protections afforded by many state laws can be trumped by less-comprehensive federal statutes.

Roach didn't know that when he told BofA he wasn't asking to be allowed to skip the payments, or even to have the late fees waived. He simply wanted the bank to help fix his credit score, which took a hit as a result of the unpaid bills.

Section 401 of the California Military and Veterans Code specifies what happens if a service member seeks relief for "any tax, fine, penalty, insurance premium, or other civil obligation or liability."

Seeking such relief can't result in "an adverse report relating to the creditworthiness of the service member."

But Roach said that when he pointed this out to BofA, the bank told him to pound sand.

"They said the bank doesn't recognize the California law," Roach recalled. "They only recognize federal law."

Betty Riess, a BofA spokeswoman, insisted that the bank is fully supportive of "the men and women of the armed forces."

But Riess said that when it comes to financial matters, BofA looks to the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, formerly known as the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act. It provides more latitude than many state laws in determining the rights of service members.

For example, the federal law caps interest rates at 6% if a service member's military duty affects his or her ability to repay a loan. But it's silent on a lender's obligation to keep a service member's credit score intact.

Riess said BofA goes beyond the terms of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Rather than charging 6% interest on outstanding balances, she said, the bank charges 5.9%. And it does it for six months longer than the law requires.

That 0.1-point discount notwithstanding, what's the problem with helping a service member who missed a couple of card payments because he was fighting terrorists overseas? If ever there was a mitigating circumstance, that should be it.

Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for the California attorney general's office, confirmed that BofA, as a national bank, is primarily regulated by the National Bank Act and appears to be acting legally.

But does that make Bank of America right?

With a little prodding from yours truly, I'm glad to say the bank reconsidered its position. But it shouldn't take some media muscle to win fair treatment for someone who enlisted not once but twice to defend his country.

Roach joined the Marines right out of high school in 1988. He served for four years, including in Operation Desert Storm during the first Gulf War.

After his time in uniform, Roach took classes at Cypress College and the University of Phoenix, eventually receiving a bachelor's degree in information technology. He went on to earn a master's degree in the field from Webster University in Irvine and established a technology consulting business.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed that. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Roach joined the Navy Reserve.

"It was a pretty patriotic time," he said. "I felt it was my duty to do what I could."

Thanks to his tech skills, Roach was commissioned as an intelligence officer. He deployed to Bagram air base in Afghanistan in April 2009, assigned to a counter-terrorism unit.

He then did a stint in Washington, D.C., before returning to Southern California in June of this year. He was released from active duty in August.

Roach's problems with BofA date to the beginning of his overseas deployment. While he was abroad, his wife apparently neglected to pay his April and May credit card bills.

"They just slipped through the cracks," Roach said. "They're my cards, and my wife didn't know about them."

OK, accidents happen. Roach willingly paid the outstanding bills and late fees.

The problem, he said, was that his credit score dropped by about 100 points as a result of the missed payments. This made Roach significantly less creditworthy in the eyes of lenders and posed a risk of higher interest rates.

But when he asked BofA to help out as per the terms of the California Military and Veterans Code, the bank wouldn't budge — until the prospect of some bad publicity arose.

Although BofA's Riess said at first that she couldn't comment directly on Roach's situation, she called back later to say the bank had decided to remove the delinquent payments from Roach's credit file.

"We will make sure the credit bureaus are notified," she said. This, presumably, will give Roach what he'd asked for in the first place: restoration of his creditworthiness.

Roach told me he was pleased with the outcome. "But I wonder how many other people are out there with the same problem who can't get it resolved," he said.

All I know is that if I had a bank, and that bank received $45 billion in bailout cash from taxpayers when times were tough (as was the case with BofA), I wouldn't hesitate to step up for a service member with a legitimate gripe.

In fact, I'd make it official bank policy.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com

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