Scary Scenes At The Haunted (Financial) House of Horrors

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He grabbed with bony fingers at my credit card and instead of swiping it through a card-reader brusquely informed me billing for my entrance fee would be done via the Internet. "And there's no firewall," he cackled, handing me back my card with hands colder than a repo man. Colder than a Minnesota drive-through in January. Colder than a termination letter from Antarctic FCU. Colder than... "That's enough," snapped one member of our group. He was a CFO; just wanted the facts, didn't like the chit-chat.

Not that anybody was chit-chatting. I was tagging along like a board member's spouse to a vendor-sponsored reception, like a non-member sneaking in and using the coin sorter, like a-(the CFO shot me an angry glance)-like a newspaper editor with a group of nervous credit union executives who had come to visit the Financial House of Haunted Halloween Horrors (two in our group noted the new FHHHH acronym and immediately formed a trade group).

Even before we reluctantly were pulled through its dark and creaking doors, some in our group who had also had their credit card numbers entered into the nonsecure site, were already so uneasy and paranoid they didn't want to push on. But we had come this far.

Like frightened schoolchildren huddled together for protection we approached the aging commercial office building that had become home to the Haunted House. Through the cobwebs formed on deceased mission statements, the dust from paper files long untouched, and the thick, low fog from multiple, competing vision positions that blanketed our feet, we could see there had once been life here-but now there was none. This had once been a bank building, and our little group of credit unionists shivered as an inexplicable chill enveloped us.

We entered, and before us were the Tombstones of Names Past: Hometown Bank, which had been secretly poisoned by State Bank, which had been seductively bewitched by Regional Bank, which in turn was bludgeoned into a merger by Super-Regional Bank, which had gone to its death following a back-stabbing by National Bank, which had been electrocuted by the acquiring Online Bank, only to have its stock price fall like a fat man at the gallows, its corpse gobbled up by the ravenish-Global Provider of Financial Services. In each, the customer had gotten smaller, and the cannibals hung customers' shrunken heads on the wall, their faces frozen in twisted anguish at not having joined ex-customers who escaped and joined a credit union.

Our group quivered en masse, and I thought I spied through the darkness even the CFO showing emotion. We moved along, past where the bank teller lines had once stood, and were startled when a ghoulish young woman leaped up from behind the counter and screamed shrilly, "Don't you have a question for me?"

The board chairman in our group jumped back, his hands clutching his heart, and he croaked a response: "What kind of question?"

"Ah ha, my sweeties," screeched the Yeller Teller. "There's a $3 fee for asking a question when you could have gone online. You must pay!"

The board chairman, still gasping, looked to his CEO, who in a practiced maneuver reluctantly reached for his wallet and gave the three bucks to the teller, who descended once more behind the counter.

We trudged onward through the dusky former bank, past the Reserved for High-Balance Customers Reception Area, and stood aghast before a room of desperate-looking people who were chained to exercise bikes that were mired in quicksand. Only be peddling as hard and fast as they could were they able to keep from completely sinking. "Welcome to The High-Minimum Balance," read the stone marker. "Fall below the minimum balance and a high fee kicks in. The high fee leads to bounced checks, which leads to new fees. You are now in The Crypt of The Endless Cycle."

Some in our group bravely threw a cooperative rope to one person smart enough to grab it, a single mom on the verge of sinking into the quicksand. "Thank you all for saving me," she cried. "Do you know what's below the sand? The payday lender!" We all shivered again.

We continued on, past the Vault of Lost Ex-Customer and Laid-Off Employee Souls, and entered the dank, cavernous and empty former call center. It was illuminated by nothing more than the haunting, blinking lights of the phones. This was the Hall of the Eternal Hold, and we heard ghost-like pleas fading in and out: "Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?" "I just need to speak to a human being for a minute." "Please, can't someone help me? Anyone?"

We scraped on, drawn to a mysterious crystal ball in the next room. In it, we all saw something different, and yet we all saw the same thing-fleeting scenes of an Eastern European hacker as he sold our credit card numbers. Scenes of people buying expensive TV's and iPods and jewelry. And suddenly materializing around us in the mist were poltergeist-like beings introducing themselves to us with our names. We had entered the Catacombs of Identity Theft, and we ran and ran and ran down hundreds of steps and turns and it seemed to take forever to escape.

And there, we found standing before us and oblivious to our presence, a credit union board of directors. They were salivating and rubbing their hands together over anticipated riches-money that belonged to their members that would now be theirs! We had descended into the darkest, most frightening place of all: The Pit of The Charter Conversion. I began taking notes when the CFO spoke up again.

"Who are you, anyway?" he demanded.

"I'm a newspaper reporter," I replied. Everyone ran away screaming.

Frank J. Diekmann is Editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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