After graduating from college, I spent almost a year living back at home with my generous and patient parents. Despite their kindness, it was not a good time. I could find no work of interest, my friends were far away, and I was pretty unmoored. My best friend was also spinning his wheels, and my girlfriend was unsuccessfully doing her best to drive me away. As the new year dawned, I did manage to find some work in a call center for Beneficial Bank. It was in the evenings, so it did not conflict with an internship I had at a local advertising agency (full of fun, creative people). I would drive down to the office near the train station and take the elevator up to the call floor, punch in, don my headset, and immerse myself in calls from upset, irate, desperate, incoherent people. It was quite a ride.
Our manager was a man whose name I entirely forget. A frenzied man with a Pakistani flag on his cubicle wall, he would pace the floor for much of the evening. When he was not stalking about, he would sit in his cube and listen in on our calls. If he heard us deviate from the bloodless, inhuman script even the tiniest bit, we would hear in our headset his hissing admonition, “Back to script! Back to script!” I can still hear his chiding words clearly.
Beneficial and a few other banks had dreamed up a very clever product, and it is one that still exists (give or take). People would go into an H&R Block office somewhere in the country to have their taxes prepared. The person there would tell them they had a refund coming, and they would be thrilled for this free money, not understanding that this refund had always been theirs and that they had simply been extending an interest free loan to Uncle Sam. The preparer would tell them they could wait weeks for their refund (this is ages before electronic filing), or if they wanted, they could get their refund that very day, minus a small fee.
Thousands upon thousands of these people, most living paycheck to paycheck, would happily accept this offer, sign the contract without reading it, and be handed their money. In their minds, the transaction was complete. In fact, it had only just begun. What they signed was a loan agreement, and when one computed the fees on the loan, the interest rates amounted to highway robbery. Yet that is not the kicker.
When things worked as the people expected, they would leave with the loan and when the IRS eventually issued the refund, it would be directed to the bank to pay off the loan, and then the transaction would be complete. Among the people who called in to my bleak call center, this never happened,
The contract they had signed at their tax preparer’s office had stipulated, in teeny tiny print buried under drifts of legalese, that they authorized Beneficial to share with its partners their name, address, employment, and refund information. In turn, their partners represented a large pool of banks across the country. The agreement further stipulated that if any of the partners held an outstanding loan against the person, that the refund would be applied towards that loan, and that the person would then need to repay Beneficial for the tax refund, as the anticipated repayment via the IRS funds had now been diverted.
Please note this was in the dark ages of the early nineties, so that the internet was not then what it is now. Beneficial’s customers were largely poor people who moved around a lot, and many of them had left behind a trail of debt that could not be easily traced back to them in their new location. What this pool of banks had dreamed up was a way of using the H&R offices around the country to serve as hunters’ blinds, and their quarry had been enticed to volunteer their information, in effect waving their hands and yelling “Over here!” to the various banks.
Everyone who called in to our office had spent their refund money within days of receiving it. None of them could repay it, and few of them understood why they were being asked by Beneficial to repay something they had not comprehended was a loan. The other people on the phones with me and I would discuss the ethics of this business on our brief, scrupulously timed breaks, and we all felt dirty being part of something that was clearly legal, but also clearly not being properly explained to the banks’ customers. I gather these loans don’t really fit the term “predatory loan” but they came mighty close, and it was an eye-opening experience being part of the bank procedures that were scooping up these people and shaking them down. I realize the money being collected was legitimately owed, but the process still resembled thievery and clearly depended on ignorance and misinformation.
These days, when I find work feeling repetitive, dull, and dreary, short on meaning and long on inanity, I think back to that nameless man, hissing in my ear thirty years ago. “Back to script!” And all of a sudden, my spreadsheets seem more palatable.