Sue BofA? You're on your own

Consumer advocates have long maintained that one of the more unfair practices in the business world is a provision in many service contracts preventing customers from joining class-action lawsuits and having to submit instead to binding arbitration to settle disputes.

Arbitration, critics say, typically favors businesses over consumers. And it's not worth most people's time to arbitrate nickel-and-dime issues that could be more practically dealt with in court.

So it was big news recently when Bank of America announced it would be the first major financial institution to no longer require that disgruntled credit card, banking and loan customers arbitrate any grievances.

Most media outlets characterized BofA's move as good for consumers and bad for the bank's lawyers, who now face a deluge of lawsuits.

Apparently it didn't occur to any of them to ask whether scrapping the arbitration requirement also meant BofA was doing away with its prohibition on customers joining class-action lawsuits.

I did. And it hasn't.

So although BofA's decision means you no longer are forced into arbitration, you still can't team up with other customers who have the same complaint and sue the bank.

You'll have to fend for yourself, paying any legal expenses and dealing with any hassles. And that assumes you could even find a lawyer willing to take on a case involving what most would deem pocket change.

"Dropping the arbitration requirement is a useful step, but it's only a half-step," said Gail Hillebrand, a senior attorney with Consumers Union. "They still want the ability to ban customers from banding together."

Class-action lawsuits are frequently abused by plaintiffs and attorneys whose only goal is to walk away with a share of some fat settlement.

But they're also arguably the best tool many consumers have to address problems involving relatively small amounts of money. Individual lawsuits, even in Small Claims Court, can often cost more to resolve than the amount under dispute.

Betty Riess, a BofA spokeswoman, told me the bank still believed arbitration was a fair and efficient means of resolving disputes.

"But we have heard that some customers have not experienced the anticipated benefits of arbitration," she said. "So we decided that it would be best for customers, and best for the bank, to discontinue the practice."

Actually, most observers think BofA was responding to a decision last month by the National Arbitration Forum, the biggest provider of arbitration services, to stop handling credit card disputes.

The organization was sued by Minnesota's attorney general for alleged fraud, deceptive trade practices and false advertising because it allegedly hid its financial ties to the very credit card companies whose disputes it was handling. The American Arbitration Assn. also said it would stop arbitrating consumer debt collection.

"Bank of America didn't want to get sued too," said Hillebrand, adding that other banks are expected to follow BofA's lead in dropping arbitration provisions in their contracts.

When I asked BofA's Riess whether the bank had scrapped its prohibition on customers joining class-action suits, it took several attempts before she could muster a straightforward response.

"We aren't addressing the class-action waivers as part of this decision," she finally said. "We will preserve the class-action waivers in our agreements."

So what should customers do?

"We would hope that people would just deal with us directly," Riess said.

Sure. Because if you can't get a fair shake from your bank, who can you turn to?


A bill for a bill

Speaking of warm customer relations, our friends at T-Mobile are notifying wireless customers that if they want to receive a monthly bill in the mail, it could cost them almost $3.50.

That's $1.50 a month for a mere summary of phone charges, and an additional $1.99 for a detailed account of all calls made and all charges.

That comes to $3.49 monthly or nearly $42 a year -- just to receive your bill.

A T-Mobile spokeswoman said the fee was levied "after considering a number of factors, including rising costs for paper, printing and postage, as well as environmental impacts associated with printing paper bills."

Neither Verizon Wireless nor AT&T; Wireless hits customers with an additional charge for receiving bills by mail.

Let's be clear: Saving trees is a good thing. And it's good for businesses and their customers to be environmentally conscious. Paperless billing is terrific -- as long as it's something you want.

But those who, for whatever reason, are more comfortable with paper bills shouldn't be punished for their preference.

Moreover, such fees disproportionately fall on senior citizens and lower-income people -- those who may not have regular access to the Internet.

Sherman Oaks resident Margery Pope, 72, said she's open to paperless billing. But she resents being strong-armed into the decision by T-Mobile.

"It shouldn't cost me extra to see what I'm being billed for," Pope said. "It's their job to let me know what I'm paying for."

Maybe she should think about suing the company. Oh, wait -- T-Mobile's contract requires that customers submit to binding arbitration.


David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.

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