Tuesday, June 22, 2010

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like

Some small progress has been made by my attempt to roll my money out of the pension fund of my erstwhile employer and into something more secure (he said hopefully). But nobody's making it easy. Which, I suspect, is the point.

I shared recently my futile attempt to access my ELCA Board of Pensions account online (Another Good Way to Alienate Customers!). I followed that time-waster with a call the next day to Customer Service, which also, initially, took me down a blind alley: Foolishly, since I wanted my pension account information, I chose the option for pension account information from the automated menu. This took me to the aural equivalent of the same Through the Looking-Glass experience as I had encountered online the day before, namely, the request for SSN and nonexistent PIN with no other options--certainly no opportunity to speak to a human being.

Hang up. Call again. Choose something different.

By and by I am talking to a person, and a nice one at that. He can't help me, but he switches me over immediately to the person who can. And, by golly, she does help me! I get the info I needed, and she pledges to send me a PIN--after informing me that it's possible that a PIN was never sent to me in the first place seven or eight years ago, which would make my searching for it the previous afternoon even more futile. But anyhow. The ELCA Board of Pensions should know that Brian and Corina are doing their best to rescue clients' opinion of their customer service, even as their own web interface undermines it.

Almost makes me feel bad for pulling my money out. Almost. The NPR story that spurred my decision to hit the exit reminds me that I have a choice: I can pull my money out or, potentially, have it pulled out from under me.

Also, e-mail I had from a Service Center Representative makes me less inclined to stick around. Another good way to alienate customers: Blame them for your poorly designed system. When I sent "feedback" after my loop-de-loop experience with the website on Sunday, I received back a sort-of apology but with a smarmy "if it were a system with a low security threshold it would not serve our requirements or your expectations" attached. Well, my expectation is that when your goddamn system gives me options for retrieving a forgotten PIN, your goddamn system will in fact provide the promised assistance and not send me off into a continuous loop. (There is a Forgot Your PIN? link, which presents two options, Answer Challenge Question and Mail a PIN Reminder. I tried both. And both times I received the same unhelpful message: The information you entered to log into the system does not match our records. Please Log In again now. Which is of course impossible without the PIN. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence that your pension fund doesn't recognize your Social Security Number, does it?) And my expectation is that, when your goddamn system doesn't work, you won't try to shove the blame back on me! Better your goddamn system provide no "help" links at all than links that provide no help.

Oh, he also tried to get away with some balderdash about the system telling me that my information didn't match its records because it was locking me out after too many attempts to log in. Which is not just balderdash, but Grade A Balderdash of the First Order, since the system told me it didn't know my SSN on my first attempt to access it. So just fucking apologize for wasting my time and have your people redesign the interface so that it works properly instead of blaming the customer when it doesn't work.

Okay, so I no longer feel bad about taking my money away from them.

Or, at least, trying to take my money elsewhere. Trying, it develops, is about the best I can hope for.

Next day I meet with my financial adviser, who has some, well, advice as to what I might do with my ELCA pension money. I decide on a course of action, and he starts me on the paperwork while he calls the Board of Pensions to get things started on their end. And we discover, after a little while, that it's not going to be as straightforward as we'd anticipated.

Big surprise.

Turns out ELCA policy says that one may withdraw no more than the greater of $10,000 or 10% of his or her account per annum. Except that there is a one-time allowance of $20,000 or 20%.

Which means that, if the market continues to perform as well or better than it currently is, it will be several years before I can get all of "my" money out!

Astonishing. And yet, somehow, not.

Of course, my adviser asked the Board of Pensions rep why this was so. And the answer: "It's policy." Afterward, I apologized for not prepping him on the fact that we would be dealing with a churchy organization, for whom "We've always done it that way" is considered a valid answer to any inquiry.

Actually, I understand the policy. National Public Radio runs a report on church organizations' pension funds being exempt from the protections of the Investment Company Act of 1940, the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, or state securities laws and the next thing you know people start to wonder if they're comfortable having their retirement loot in a fund that might simply go away at the whim of those running the fund. And the next thing you know, you have perhaps thousands of people withdrawing their money, all of it, right now. And the fund collapses.

I get that. But in my instance--my position was eliminated due to an extreme budget shortfall caused by mad Christians withholding giving because some other congregation somewhere else might call a gay pastor (see previous posts on that subject here and here)--you'd think that maybe there would be an exception. To be thrown under the wheels because of a bad reaction to ELCA policy and then told that I can't even take my little pension account someplace else because of some other policy smacks more than a little of adding insult to injury.

Or rather adding more injury to injury.

The insult part was blaming me for their crappy web system.