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Originally published Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Danny Westneat

Getting even with monsters

Bob Miller knows he's "throwing pebbles at tanks. " But what the heck. Sometimes a little mischief is the only way to get a point across.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Bob Miller knows he's "throwing pebbles at tanks."

But what the heck. Sometimes a little mischief is the only way to get a point across.

So it came to be that Bob, owner of a Kirkland architecture shop, came up with a creative way to express his frustration about the one-sided, dysfunctional relationship he has with several big banks.

You know how banks constantly send out legal notices saying they have decided to "change the terms of your agreement?"

For business reasons, Bob has accounts with three monster banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and U.S. Bank. He guesses he gets a dozen or more of these notices a year. It's a "litany of lawyer-speak and fine print," he says, that's always unilateral.

One day it hit him: If these are really agreements — an expression of assent by two or more parties — then why can't he make changes to the terms, too?

So he drafted a few choice legal notices of his own. To rub it in, he's making the changes "opt-out" — that is, if he doesn't hear from the banks, he'll assume they're now bound by his new terms.

They read, to me, like a big-bank victims' Bill of Rights.

"Beginning Sept. 1, 2010," reads his first one, "interest bearing accounts will actually pay interest."

And: "The bank will pay at the rate of $60 (US) per hour for time the applicant expends on hold while trying to contact the bank via telephone."

My favorite: "The salary of the bank's CEO will be equal to 3 times the amount paid to the lowest-paid bank employee."

OK, Miller knows none of this is going to stick. He says he recently was charged to deposit money into one of his accounts. Some sort of "activity fee." He couldn't take it any more.

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"I took all my money out of Chase, but I haven't been able to get untangled from the others yet," Miller says. "So for what it's worth, this is my idea for protesting our big-bank syndrome."

Miller was one of dozens of readers who wrote in to tell about their big-bank traumas after I featured the story of Stephan Mollmann, a Central Area bar owner who offered a free dinner to anyone who quits Chase bank.

The stories were familiar — businesses harmed or ruined when lines of credit were randomly frozen; baffling penalties and fees; indifferent, pass-the-buck customer service.

What intrigued me is how people are fighting back. Some symbolically, like Miller. Some pragmatically (by switching to credit unions, for instance).

Some are returning fire with guerrilla-like tactics.

One reader said she no longer pays the escalating bank fees. She simply refuses.

"I contest every single one, threaten to close my account, the works," she said. "Your readers should try it. It works."

Another says he withdrew all his money and then, in the spirit of Andy Rooney, began sending back every bank mailing "so they pay the postage coming and going."

Then there's Mollmann. His approach was public shaming. He was stuck in a high-interest mortgage (7.75 percent!) that Chase refused to refinance. So he announced "free yourself from Chase!" month, using his bar, The Twilight Exit, as a pulpit to preach his cause.

It worked in a way. He told me Tuesday he never heard from Chase (because they are beyond shame?). Due to the publicity, though, a mortgage broker offered to work for him for half price. He's lined him up to qualify for a 5.0 percent, 30-year mortgage — all with an ease and speed that's proof, Mollmann says, "that Chase was trying to shaft me."

Mollmann says his bar has now become a repository for bank sob stories.

"People call up all the time and say, 'Hey, man, the bank did that to me, too!' " Mollmann says. "It's crazy. People really want to speak their minds about this."

Yes, we do. And if we keep speaking — and acting out and pulling our money and generally making trouble — maybe some day they'll hear.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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