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How to complain to your bank -- and win!

Mark Hartman was sure that his bank would recognize immediately the $21,000 overdraft on his checking account as a mistake. A stranger's check from another bank had been drawn incorrectly from Hartman's account at Wells Fargo. A computer glitch. Certainly the slip-up would be fixed with a quick phone call.

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Wrong. It took 10 days and a visit with a branch manager to correct the mysterious mistake. In the three years since, Hartman has become an authority on how to complain when a bank does something wrong.

Lots of things can go wrong: A bank can lose a deposit, credit you with the wrong amount for a deposit, count one ATM withdrawal twice, accidentally add an extra 0 so that your $100 check turns into a $1,000 debit, transfer money to or from the wrong account, charge you fees that you shouldn't have to pay, fail to use the overdraft protection that you signed up for, or mess up so spectacularly that you end up scratching your head in puzzlement, which is what happened with Hartman.

Through his own experiences and the ordeals of others, Hartman has earned guerrilla expertise in complaining to banks. He objects about even minor goofs -- the sorts of errors that less-assertive people don't take the time and effort to fix. And his slow-burning anger about the overdraft led him to create and maintain an anti-Wells Fargo Web site. He says hundreds of site visitors have e-mailed him to share their experiences.

Pick your target -- and your weapon
His No. 1 piece of advice: Complain in person and not over the phone.

"Forget customer service lines, unless you want a simple balance inquiry," the Fort Collins, Colo., resident says.

But don't complain to a teller, and don't start out by writing a letter to the bank's president.

"Tellers are simply there to make deposits, withdrawals, encourage the use of automated machines and upsell the customer," Hartman says. "In my observation, and after reading hundreds of letters from other consumers that have had troubles with banks, sending a letter is of little or no value and starting at the bottom of the employee hierarchy is equally useless."

So aim at the middle of the hierarchy: the branch manager. Hartman suggests that, if you can, talk in person with the manager of the branch where you opened the account.

"Humans are sympathetic by nature and often want to avoid confrontation, and this works in the customer's favor only if he or she appears in person at their branch office," he says. "There are undoubtedly exceptions, but for the vast majority of your consumer issues, this technique gets results with the least amount of wasted time. This is especially true when your problem is rather complex or involves a large sum of money."

Belt and suspenders
It helps to adopt a belt-and-suspenders approach by backing up your meetings and phone calls with letters, says R. Stuart Phillips, a lawyer in Poulsbo, Wash., who practices a lot of consumer law. Contrary to Hartman's advice, Phillips says it doesn't hurt to try to settle matters over the phone, at least initially.

 
 
Next: "The attorney-free approach"
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