First in a series
JPMorgan Chase & Co. took procedural shortcuts and used faulty account records in suing tens of thousands of delinquent credit card borrowers for at least two years, current and former employees say.
The process flaws sparked a regulatory probe by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and forced the bank to stop suing delinquent borrowers altogether last year.
The bank's errors could call into question the legitimacy of billions of dollars in outstanding claims against debtors and of legal judgments Chase has already won, current and former Chase employees say.
For the banking industry at large, the situation at Chase highlights the risk that shoddy back-office procedures and flawed legal work extends well beyond mortgage servicing.
"We did not verify a single one" of the affidavits attesting to the amounts Chase was seeking to collect, says Howard Hardin, who oversaw a team handling tens of thousands of Chase debt files in San Antonio. "We were told [by superiors] 'We're in a hurry. Go ahead and sign them.'"
Hardin left the bank in 2010 to work in a different industry.
Chase declined repeated requests to discuss details of its consumer debt collection activities.
Company documents, court filings, and interviews with seven current and former employees reveal that Chase's credit card litigation operation was allegedly plagued by unreliable external attorneys, management's disregard for accuracy, and patchy technology.
The bank's computer systems frequently disagreed about how much debtors actually owed, several of the Chase sources say.
The employees' stories corroborate allegations made by Linda Almonte, a former mid-level business process executive in Chase's San Antonio-based Credit Card Litigation Support Group. Dismissed in November 2009 after six months on the job, Almonte filed whistleblower complaints and a wrongful termination suit claiming that she was fired for objecting to the sale of credit card debts with erroneous balances.
Almonte's complaints drew the attention of the OCC, former Chase employees say, and led to the April 2011 shutdown of a formidable collections operation that generated several billion dollars of legal judgments every year.
Few details of the OCC's investigation are available, but current and former Chase employees confirm that staffers from the agency's enforcement division spent two months gathering information in the San Antonio facility late last year. A person familiar with the OCC's review says that the regulator is taking the situation very seriously.
This is the first article in a series that will look at what allegedly went wrong in Chase's credit card litigation operation — and how those missteps could roil the banking and debt collection industries.
The root of Chase's card collections failures was more machine than man. Chase maintains a patchwork of computer systems that don't always communicate well, according to former employees who used them. Meet TSYS, TCSF and RMS.
TSYS is what outsiders assume a global bank's customer data system looks like. Licensed from Total Systems Services Inc. and managed by Chase, it's the modern and versatile system that consumers ultimately talk to when they check their credit card balance online.
TSYS only handles current accounts, however. When customers stop paying credit card bills, their accounts are passed to TCSF, for collections and litigation, and eventually to RMS for charge-offs.
Each of Chase's systems handles its own tasks just fine. The problem employees faced is that TCSF and RMS can only talk to each other through TSYS, and each of the systems operates by its own rules. This means that when presented with the question of how much a customer owes, each might spit out a different answer.
"I came across that on a regular basis," says Carole McGinn, who retired in 2010 from the credit card litigation support group in San Antonio. The discrepancies were usually minor, she and three other employees say, but payments by heavily delinquent borrowers would throw the records seriously out of whack.
"There was no way to reconcile those balances that I knew of," says McGinn, who worked at Chase for almost 15 years.
To overcome this problem, Chase's business process staff reviewed records in multiple systems and reconciled the accounts manually.
Chase's relationship with outside debt collectors posed another potential glitch. In populous states like California, Illinois and Florida, the bank employed in-house attorneys who were wired into all of its relevant computer systems.
Elsewhere, it relied on what credit card litigation staffers referred to as "outhouse attorneys." Paid according to how much money they recovered, the outsiders were connected only to TCSF, the litigation system. Former Chase employees say some of the firms, such as the since-imploded Mann Bracken LLP, were known for poor recordkeeping.
Chase's San Antonio crew was well versed in dealing with their computer systems' quirks and the outside firms' foibles. They adjusted accordingly, monitoring outside law firms for errors and stripping inaccurate charges from accounts.
"We made it work," says a former employee.
"Everything in Dollars Collected"