And Now A Word From Our Winner
By Consumers Union on Wednesday, March 10th, 2010
Sean Kleefeld is the winner of the 2010 Dangers of Debt Image Contest.
After garnering over 4000 votes he won the grand prize of $1000 and a years subscription to Consumer Reports Online. Perhaps more importantly he helped us get the word out about the Dangers of Debt and how people can get involved and stand up to the Big Banks. Here is his story:
I live in Hamilton, Ohio. I have a BS in graphic design and an MBA with a concentration in marketing. I’ve been working professionally as a web designer for the past 12-13 years. I’m a big fan of comics and cartoons, and my piece was obviously took more than a couple cues from that.
I got divorced a few years ago, and wound up having to take out a large, unsecured loan to pay a lump sum to my ex-wife. That, combined with now living in the same house with only one income, I found that I had to take a serious look at my finances. I started with some immediate cut-backs, but it took another 6-8 months of continually paring my expenses down, plus running through what little savings I had, before I got to some form of sustainable lifestyle. Towards the end of that process, I began dating a woman who was already deeply interested in personal finance herself, and she actually helped me make some of those last, most painful, financial decisions.
Fortunately for me, this all came about just before the economic collapse of 2008. I was living exclusively within my means by that point and didn’t need to reach out for additional credit. I still had plenty of debt hanging over my head, but with the help of my girlfriend, I had set up an action plan for paying it off over the next several years.
Some of the websites I was working on last year actually were directly discussing the CCARD Act that Congress passed, so I became reasonably aware of the changes credit card companies were having to take, and I was able to see how some of the companies reacted. The worst reaction, for me, was Bank of America, who I have that large loan with. While it wasn’t a credit card specifically, they announced late last year that they were changing my loan from a fixed rate to a variable rate, according to a provision in their contract which basically says they can change the rules any time they feel like it for any reason. They were also setting the initial rate to what my current fixed rate was, so that it effectively couldn’t not go up!
A couple quick searches online found that they were doing this across the board, and everyone was furious. A lot of us called and emailed repeatedly (a number of people were posting names and direct phone lines of some of the higher executives) and the response that lots of us got — including myself — was, “That’s the way it’s going to be. Deal with it.” One woman I talked with seriously suggested to me that I should just hope the economy didn’t improve, so my rate didn’t go up. I promptly started looking for other places to take a loan to, but the credit market had shrunk so much that no one was even considering loans that high.
I maintain a comics-oriented blog that receives a reasonable amount of traffic, so I took several days to go off-topic and explain the credit issues I was dealing with. I was expressly asking for help from anyone who might work within BoA and, failing that, just trying to get the word out about what I considered their unethical practices. From what I knew about CCARD, it was clear that they were trying to utilize that as a loophole in the regulations so they could continue to arbitrarily change rates with few impediments.
That, I think, laid the groundwork for my contest entry. I heard about it from my girlfriend, who continues to look for more opportunities on my behalf. After I submitted my entry, I went back to the audience for my blog, as well as the friends I’ve made through Facebook and Twitter, to promote the contest and my entry specifically. I posted repeated entries in all three venues and, when it was possible, embedded a voting page within my posts, so people didn’t even have to leave my blog to vote.
Ultimately, I think that my blog helped the most, as I had established something of a following through it from years before. I had an audience who had some vested interest in me through my writing, and who were aware of some of the financial difficulties I faced before the contest; that they were able to help me without impacting their own wallets, I think, was a form of thanks. At least, I like to think that it is! I posted a follow-up note on my own blog thanking them for the strong support, and telling them that the prize money will absolutely and entirely go towards that BoA loan.
Interestingly, too, the ruckus that myself and many others caused online with Bank of America changing their rates seemed to have an impact. Just before the new rates were to go into effect, BoA sent out letters stating that they had made a clerical mistake and that my rate wasn’t going to change after all.
UPDATE Be sure to check out Seans blog Kleefeld on Comics