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Bank of America's handling of blunder is troubling

BofA gave two customers the same 10-digit account number, leading to $30,000 in Social Security payments going to the wrong person. The bank did little to fix things until prosecutors got involved.

July 12, 2011|David Lazarus
  • People use a Bank of America ATM on January 21, in San Francisco, CA. The bank gave the same 10-digit account number to two customers, resulting in about $30,000 in a Riverside man's Social Security payments going astray.
People use a Bank of America ATM on January 21, in San Francisco, CA. The bank… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

Mistakes happen. It's how a business responds to those mistakes that defines its commitment to customer service.

Here's the story of how Bank of America gave the same 10-digit account number to two customers, resulting in about $30,000 in a Riverside man's Social Security payments going astray.

But even after the man's relatives pinpointed the problem and brought it to the bank's attention, the family said BofA did little to fix things until the San Bernardino County district attorney's office launched its own investigation.

Moreover, the Social Security Administration, not the bank, ended up refunding the missing money.

"It's just shameful that Bank of America let it get this far," said David Madden, 37, grandson of the man whose payments went to someone else for nearly two years. "What's really despicable is that the bank knew all along that it was responsible."

Betty Riess, a BofA spokeswoman, acknowledged key aspects of the case but declined to discuss specifics because the bank is still investigating what happened.

"This is an unusual and unfortunate incident," she said.

Madden said his grandfather, Robert Weber, 88, had banked with BofA for more than 60 years. Weber is a World War II vet who went on to spend about 30 years as a machinist in the Southern California aerospace industry.

He's now in failing health — his heart, mostly, and his eyes. Madden said he and his father started looking into Weber's finances in December when it became clear that Weber was no longer capable of overseeing his affairs.

What they found alarmed them. Madden said it appeared that Weber hadn't received a Social Security payment since March 2009. The money was supposed to be deposited in a BofA account held by a trust in Weber's and his wife's name.

"It never occurred to them that the money was missing," Madden said. "They just believed they didn't have as much as they thought."

He said he and his father went to BofA's Hesperia branch, where Weber had his accounts, and asked the manager what was going on. The manager explained that BofA had given Weber new account numbers in 2009 because of "suspicious activity."

Madden said the bank manager wouldn't elaborate on what that activity was.

As part of the change, the Social Security Administration was provided with the new account numbers so payments could continue uninterrupted. Madden said his grandmother's checks went into the new account.

Weber's, on the other hand, went AWOL.

"The bank manager said they could see on the screen that my grandfather's checks were going to a different account," Madden said. "But they said there was nothing they could do about it."

Why?

"I wish I knew," Madden replied. "They never gave us a good explanation."

BofA's Riess declined to comment on why Madden and his father apparently hit a brick wall in trying to untangle this mess.

But she acknowledged that the same account number was given to two customers. "It's not common that this happens," Riess said. "But it does happen occasionally."

Madden and his dad called the county sheriff's department. A deputy came to BofA's Hesperia branch and saw for himself on the bank's computer that Weber's Social Security checks had been going to someone else.

The sheriff's department referred the matter to the San Bernardino district attorney's office, which launched an investigation.

In March, Claudia Moralez, 38, was arrested on suspicion of grand theft. She pleaded guilty in May and was sentenced last week to 90 days in county jail.

Jason Wilkinson, a deputy district attorney for San Bernardino County, said it was clear that Moralez knew the money being deposited into her BofA account wasn't hers but that she made no effort to alert the bank or to return the money.

He also said Moralez withdrew the money from her account and used it for her own purposes.

As part of her sentencing, Wilkinson said, Moralez will be on probation for five years and will be required to repay nearly $30,000 to the Social Security Administration, plus about $4,000 to Weber to compensate him for the interest he could have earned had he received his payments.

BofA's Riess declined to comment on why taxpayers, and not the bank, had to refund Weber after the problem became known.

A spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration said she couldn't discuss details of the case. But she said offering restitution to a beneficiary who has missed payments is an acceptable use of the Social Security trust fund.

I'm glad Weber got his money. And it's reassuring that justice was served. But BofA's actions, or non-actions, are deeply troubling, to say the least.

And for what it's worth, Madden said no one from the bank ever bothered to apologize to his family for what happened.

Weber is no longer a BofA customer.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesday 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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