True Tales From The Inside: "I Used To Do Collections For USAA"

Yesterday’s post “USAA Lets You Remotely Deposit Checks” provoked a reader comment from a former USAA collections agent so interesting that we gave it its own post.

ValEl worked for USAA in collections in San Antonio, TX, for two years before being fired for no apparent reason, he says.

His 1,445 word-long comment covers a lot of ground, from USAA’s susceptibility to check-kiting to celebrity abuse of call center employees. Interestingly, he says, the Bush family banks with USAA.

His incisive look into what goes on the other end of the phone in the financial services company famed for its superlative customer service, inside…

ValEl writes:

I worked at USAA federal savings bank for 2 years from 2002 to 2004. I was fired for not making the grade. The lady in HR was nice and supplied me with tissues and a security guard escort to the parking garage. That day I drove to the park where I took my first girlfriend and sat at the park bench for a while. That day it was dark and cloudy and miserable. I don’t hate USAA for firing me. They couldn’t give me a specific reason. I didn’t grab a female co-workers bum or send a chain email via the internet. I was always on time…had over 125 hours of vacation and sick time available because I never called in even when I should have. My breaks were always down to the second because I had a stop watch and would be back “online” at my desk within 14 min. and 59 seconds.

That day going home and having to tell my father that I was let go was the hardest for me. My parents were so proud that I got a job with USAA which had gained an almost “el dorado”-type of status around the san antonio community. I worked my ass off but in the end I think it was my fault. Every day we had “members” (not “customers” in the traditional sense) who would call in and expect world class customer service yet there were those who would be abusive and downright vindictive. NSF fees? “Sorry sir but there’s no money left in your account”. The next day after calling to several execs and higher ups the NSF fees would be reversed. USAA would give a 500 “Buffer” on debit cards and once this factoid got out it was exploited like a bearded lady in a traveling circus. People would (swear to god) overdraw their accounts up to 300.00 and face ALL those penalties up to 500.00. To them it was a fact of life. I would review these accounts and not see anything legit. Just a lot of charges at Wal-mart and Starbucks. Ridiculous. But when USAA pulled the “buffer” people would call in frantic because they had 100.00 but would try to buy something for 105.00 and be declined. Screaming and crying would ensue. Threats on our jobs if we didn’t let the charge go thru. A quick xfer to the supervisor would allow them to buy those DVDs and CDs.

Towards the end it got worse. I’m a consumerist at heart. I think and believe that Consumerist found ME and not the other way around. I believe in fairness and doing what is right even if it’s not going to satisfy EVERYONE. My workplace became a call center. Period. We were told to mind our business and never ask questions. If you went to a Spurs game you were expected to cover your USAA logo on your golf shirt if you drank a beer. You were expected to not talk to the media. When they began hiring workers from India and the news vans would track them migrating up and down Fredericksburg road you were expected to not even THINK about giving a comment. When the layoffs occurred and people working for 20 years were released you DAMN sure were expected to avoid the media.

My downfall was the password feature.

I’ll bring this to a close soon. If ben and co. boot me from the site then so be it. USAA was and is the easiest bank to defraud. Check kiting was the norm due to our geographic location and lack of outside regional branches. It’s all here in San Antonio. A con artist would open an account online and mail in a deposit check and have the debit card fedexed. Drain the account….disappear. USAA was losing over half a million dollars a month because of this. USAA tried their best to curb this but it was hard. My absolute irritation was the password feature mentioned above. Example: Sarah Smith from Halifax calls in. She gives me her member number. I verify her last four of SSN and DOB. I give the last charges on her checking account. Sarah wants a “password”. USAA demanded at one time to have the request in writing. The bush family has accounts there. A former Spurs basketball player has multiple accounts there. These are celebrities that demand more security. But then again they have people to do this for them. Sarah Smith would normally have to * mail * in a notarized letter explaining the need for a password and her password request. But alas, USAA wants to make everyone happy so they eliminate this and allow members to verbally TELL us the password they wanted. We would enter it and when Sarah Smith called back she would’nt have to go thru all the “trouble” of giving us her member number AND verify info. She could just call in and say her member number and “blueberry” as her password. I would ask management what if I don’t think its Sarah Smith on the other line. Answer: Don’t worry about it. If Sarah Smith forgets her password then that’s alright. Just give us your DOB and SSN. Okay, now you want “apple” as your password now? Done. This was so RIPE for cracking and you would think they would see this but they didn’t. In the end I became frustrated. I can play devil’s advocate really well and could and would see the folly of letting this happen. People would call in and get mad when I asked for their password and they forgot it. We would ask them to call back but they persisted…so we would verify other info and give them all account information. If they called and hated verifying the last four of SSN I would suggest putting a note on their file to alert the other reps to ask for special info like their child’s birthdate or middle name….stuff not found by dumpster diving. I would place this on the file only to have another lazy rep tell them it wasn’t necessary and to put a password instead. It was insanity and just plain wrong. I didn’t mind the old timers and elderly military wives. They earned respect and they got it from me in abundance. But alas, USAA wanted the young gen-x’ers and would bend and curve to their demands. If I offered to send a check register for free….I was being “rude”. People didn’t know how to monitor their accounts and keep an eye on the bottom line. If we didn’t KNOW how much their Pending direct deposit was going to be then we are being “difficult”. In fact, that feature was a closely guarded secret and USAA had mandatory policies in place to NEVER release this information to the public because we weren’t liable for the information given. One rep gave this information out and that member would tell another. One rep would try to be extra nice and reveal this “cool” secret. The proverbial feline was out of the bag and running wild. What if the “pending” amount is different from the actual deposit? This would be a HUGE time waster and tie up the phone lines as people would actually *question* us when we told them that the pending deposit was, say, 1099.98 and different from last week when it was 1110.96. “Are your computers down?” or “are you new?…can I speak with someone who knows?” was a common inquiry when we couldn’t answer their question. Verbal abuse was commonplace. I can actually name several members who became so infamous for their daily call-in verbal ramblings and insults that to get slammed by them was almost an invitation.

Because they had money USAA never shut them down.

In the end, there was soul searching. Over the year I gained a love that was lost. I lost weight. I tried being a salesman. I got a new job. I am grateful to people like Ben Popken who constantly question authority and won’t accept quick and dishonest results. I’m always on the lookout for injustices and hate seeing them unresolved. All of us here are *expected* to never let large companies jerk us around. We are expected to do the right thing. USAA never did the right thing by me and for that I am eternally grateful. I was fired for being different. Period. The “Logan’s Run” type environment never suited my ethics. Being a part of the corporate culture so meticulously maintained by the soil of USAA was and never will be my bag, baby. And it never will be.


Edit Your Comment

  1. brooklynbs says:

    I can’t attest to what goes on inside of USAA, but as a lifelong customer of the company, I can say that I’ve had nothing but good experiences doing business with them and communicating with their CSRs.

    It is, however, disheartening to hear about some of the company’s practices, which on the surface appear aimed at actually benefitting customers. I’m surprised that USAA would allow the fraud that ValEl outlines to persist.

    This information does not change my opinion of USAA. It does, however, make me realize what a joy I must be for CSR people to deal with, lol.

  2. Echodork says:

    Are call centers really any different from each other? Every call center story I read is equal parts customer aggression and managerial incompetence. I have two years of Tech Support with Echostar (Dish Network) on my resume, and it was no different there. When I got home at night, I couldn’t decide which to blog about first… the abusive, ignorant customers or the grossly negligent management. Really, though, which is more appalling? The customer who drunkenly cusses you out because you won’t give them free porn? Or the call center manager who asks you to cut your honeymoon short because two weeks off “doesn’t mesh with the needs of the business?” How long can you work in that environment before you simply give up?

    Anyway, notch your belt and move on.

  3. I used to work at the Evil Giant known as USAA.

    I did not work with the customers, but with the reps themselves. I was on the internal USAA Helpdesk.

    Unfortunately the HellDesk appears to be run the same way as other departments in USAA. Badly.

    To make this short and not bore the non-tech community. There were two kinds of us. Full Time, and Contractor. I was a contractor.

    $12 an hour, no benefits, only a 35 minute lunch and 2 twenty minute breaks, and was supposed to take 50-70 calls a day.

    Now the full time employee’s: Salary roughly equal to $25 an hour. Benefits, and from all records I could find only took about 20-30 calls a day. Schedule was roughly the same.

    When we had a busy day on the helldesk, any meeting between contractors and the contractor manager would have to be cancelled or moved back. But any meetings for the full time employees would never get cancelled. Even if we had people on hold for 20 minutes.

    Other things management did followed that whole stupid not the best way of doing things.

    I got to train a new hire once. The person I was training was hired for this tech position. He could type 10 WPM, barely spell, had no previous helpdesk/customerservice work. And seriously, he typed 2 fingers. You know what I’m saying.

    I’m rambling now. I hated USAA, I only worked there because the tech industry was at a low and work was work. I have moved onto a better company and love my new job.

    Peace out.

  4. RandomHookup says:

    So it’s okay to disclose the names of USAA banking customers?

    Plus DOB and SSN for military are lousy security measures…very easy to find around a military base (lose a dog tag, anyone?)

  5. bambino says:

    brevity is next to godliness.

  6. synergy says:

    I saw this rambly thing and skipped skipped skipped. Did it get cleaned up? I thought there were more spelling and grammar errors in there when I saw before.

  7. I enjoyed reading this. I have worked in the same industry for 5 or so odd years.

    “Has anyone seen my stapler? I want my stapler back.”

  8. VA_White says:

    Echodork said:
    Are call centers really any different from each other?

    I think they are from the point of view of the customer. I’ve called Apple’s call center and they are great. I get a real person who speaks English and they’ve never failed to solve my iBook/Airport/iPod problems on the first or second call.

    I’ve also called USAA many times since we have all our insurance and banking business with them and I also always get friendly, knowledgeable, and prompt service.

    Try calling Dell’s Tech Support or Wells Fargo Bank sometime. The craziness there leaks right through the phone onto the caller. USAA, Dell, Apple, and Wells Fargo might be the same kind of call center on the inside, but from the outside, they look very different.

  9. timmus says:

    I don’t hate USAA for firing me. They couldn’t give me a specific reason.

    Does not compute.

  10. timmus says:

    Well, never mind, that’s kind of a inane comment. As someone who has a USAA account sort of on reserve, I just want to think ValEl for posting the “insider scoop”. I’ll pass it on to my wife… I think she’ll be interested, too. Thanks!

  11. heinzs says:

    “Try calling Dell’s Tech Support or Wells Fargo Bank sometime.”

    I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with Wells Fargo. They have always been very helpful in working with me through problems. One case was a matter of trying to quit AOL after one of those deals where you get $15 off anything in a big chain store if you sign up for a free trial. They (either the store or AOL, not sure) signed me up for three trials instead of the one I agreed to, and when I called to cancel, they only killed one of them.

    AOL was horrible to work with over the phone. They had no idea how their own billing/account system worked and my call was exported to India where the associate was powerless to help me anyway. They credited me $20 out of the $100 I was entitled to, as the two accounts had gone for a few months before I noticed it. Supposedly that was all they were going to give me.

    After a futile series of calls to AOL, I solved the problem with one call to Wells Fargo. I disputed the charges, and they said they had problems with AOL all the time. Within a couple of weeks, I saw the credit on my account.

    Heck, the gal on the other end of the line even chatted with me for a few minutes about World of Warcraft after she noticed I was a subscriber.

    Another time I was double-charged for a parking pass in a garage. I called them and it took less than 5 minutes total to get it fixed.

  12. Frank Grimes says:

    Somewhat off topic but I attempted to open a USAA account due to the great service/benefits mentioned. I was told I didn’t qualify which I thought was odd. I was prompted to call by two friends who gained their military stripes watching Fox news but are members, I on the other hand joined the Marines and served from 91-99. I called and was told I would have had to join by ’03, fours years after my enlistment ended, I was out of luck, so-sorry, and nothing we can do. They did encourage me to write the board which I did, explaining that I put my ass on the line in the Marines while my buddies were boozing it up (but whose dads were both prior Navy officers). They wrote a nice note back explaining that their rules are their rules and sorry. Unfortunately I will always look at USAA as elitist snobs who bend over backwards for officer’s kids but then put asinine membership stipulations for common grunts like me. In all honesty I may have been told about USAA but never bothered, but at the time I had access to Navy Federal Credit Union which I am a member of, but can’t hold a candle to USAA.

  13. Rahnee says:

    Speaking of BAD call centers. Try calling XMradio and getting any help. Last time I had an issue with my service it took several calls to get someone who spoke English. I asked the rep where I was calling and I was told “Bombay, India”. Try it for yourself. Call 1-800-xmradio and just ask for for info on purchasing a radio. Then ask what the location of the help desk you are calling is. I was suprised.

  14. ValEl says:

    Actually, I worked in “DSS” or deposit sales and service. I also did electronic banking and debit card support. I still cringe driving to the medical center and passing USAA. Effexor and Adderall helps a bit. However just concentrating on the car in front of me and minding the speed limit ( a police station is close by and cops are ALWAYS around ) adds a major part. I can’t wait to leave this city.

  15. formergr says:

    Rahnee, you’re surprised that call center is in Bombay, India?? This has been happening for oh, about 15 years now.

  16. Mr. Gunn says:

    Cheer up, Dude. It’s no comment on your worth as a person to be fired from a huge corporation. You’re just one tooth of a gear in the huge machine. Go play some music or something.

  17. Islingtonian says:

    I’m more surprised that they said they were in Bombay, instead of Mumbai.

  18. cryrevolution says:

    I live in SATX and I *actually* just about a week ago got called back for an interview with USAA. I have a job now (I had applied when I was unemployed, some 7 months ago, they just barely got back to me), but thank goodness after reading this post. I’m sorry you want to get out of SA. I am from Austin, TX, moved here 2 years ago (everyone asks me why? why would you do such a thing? but it was school that made me move down here) and I can’t wait to move too. Thanks for the insight!

  19. cryrevolution says:

    oh! and the USAA call center seriously is like an airport. IT IS HUUUUUUGE. They have gates and terminals and miles of parking…or so I’ve heard. The size of that call center is kind of an urban legend where I work (which is just a tiny office building with no cafeteria). I’ve driven past the call center and all I see is a bunch of trees surrounding signs saying “Gate 3” or “Gate 4”. Eek.

  20. SteveXo says:

    I am also a customer of USAA and I have nothing but good to say about it. We have home/auto insurance, a car loan, 2 checking accounts and a savings account with them. We switched every other account we could to USAA because they are far a away the best bank/insurance company I have ever dealt with.

    By the way, when did this site become the employee-ist? Some of you who have worked in call centers can cringe at how USAA treats their workers, but as a consumer I’m damn glad they go out of their way to cater to me.

    What the hell do I care if they don’t pay contractors as much as full-time? The real question is why YOUR company isn’t paying you more because they’re most likely charging USAA close to the same rate as USAA would pay for those full-timers?

    Oh how horrible, the bank hurt your feelings because they took care of their customers and did everything they could to make them happy… Are you the CEO of a major financial institution? No? Well then, how about you let the experts run their company the best way they see fit, K?

  21. Keter says:

    Over a decade ago, my boss’s wife worked in customer service at USAA, where she had been employed for approximately a decade. After having a baby, she started having health problems, one of which was chronic kidney and bladder infections. She had to use the bathroom about once an hour and she had doctors reports to that effect. Her supervisor repeatedly wrote her up for going to the bathroom as she needed to, and she was threatened with termination. She tried not to go so frequently, and wound up in the hospital and nearly lost her kidneys. After she went back to work, she had an order from her doctor that stated she had to be allowed to go as needed or she would lose her kidneys. They fired her for “spending too much time in the bathroom.” I lost all respect for them after that.

    Oh, and to ValEl and cryrevolution: it took me a decade to escape economic slavery in San Antonio from the moment I realized I needed to. Employers get cash-tight, and instead of laying off and paying unemployment as they should, they lie about why you were terminated to save money. It took a friend who broke his enslavement by destroying a car to commute daily to Austin for six months until he could afford to move and then let me crash on his living room floor while I looked for work in Austin, everything changed…I literally quadrupled my income for doing exactly the same job 90 miles north. San Antonio is its own third-world country and even though it is nearby, I will never go there even to visit ever again. I turned down a $100K/yr. job to return there from Austin…I hate it that much. There was a Chamber of Commerce slogan “That’s SO San Antonio!” — “that” is ignorant, illiterate, dirty, illegal, poverty-stricken, drug and gang-ridden, corrupt, nepotistic, reverse discriminatory, and !*@#ing proud of it. Check Austin Craigslist…there are GOOD customer service (and other) jobs on there all the time.

  22. Keter just reminded me of something else they did there that was stupid.

    They have an entire Ergonomic department to adjust how you sit, set up ergonomic equipment and help make sure you don’t suffer any of the common problems from being at the computer all day.

    Well guess what! As a contractor you will not get the ergonomic evaluation. The only way you can get any ergonomic equipment (ie trackball, natural keyboard) is if you have a note from a doctor stating you already have the problems ergonomics is supposed to help prevent.

    If you’re a full time employee there though, of course it’s no problem to get the ergonomic eval and equipment.

  23. ogmaster says:

    ValEl, I would really like to know more about the firing. What did your managers say? You mentioned about the password being the downfall but how?

    I’m currently working at USAA and we do cater to our members. We bend over backwards. Hearing the fear in the voice of manager when they have to take an escalated call from a 40 year member, that tells you that seniority and bitching go a long way. It’s great in some cases, especially for our members. But also, it creates a mass of spoiled brats that ask for the world because they know that they cant get that same service anywhere else. USAA is in the middle of an identity crisis of wanting to be a part of the new generation of online banks yet we have a large portion of members holding onto the antique technology and fighting the wave of change.

  24. FLConsumer says:

    Does anyone know what the USAA facility in NE Tampa does? It’s huge, well-guarded and has a huge parking garage. Very quiet place. They do have some sort of recreational complex on the property, all behind tall fences. I’d be curious just to know what the round building is for.


  25. Her Grace says:

    What the hell do I care if they don’t pay contractors as much as full-time?

    You will care when you get contract workers on the phone who are dehumanized to the point of not caring, themselves. Part of getting good customer service is patronizing companies which treat their workers humanely. Workers who are treated right–that is, breaks when needed, time to eat, paid appropriately, and given benefits respective to their hours worked–are going to be happier and more willing to help customers in any way possible. A work staff that are happy with their jobs are going to be able to treat customers fairly and kindly; a work staff that are told they can’t pee (even with a doctor’s note!) or don’t deserve benefits because they aren’t in the right class of workers (but must still do the same, if not more, work) are going to become at best apathetic, at worst spiteful. Why be pleasant and try to retain customers if everyone treats you as less than human? Then you’ll care.

  26. SteveXo says:

    Her Grace,

    Hmmm, they must be doing something right. I have been a customer for 6 years and I have yet to be pleasantly surprised anytime I contact them. When I bought my car, I applied online and they overnighted a blank check to me to take to the dealer. When we had a fire in our house, they sent out an emergency restoration crew within 2 hours. When we decided to replace the carpet with tile after the fire, they sent us the cash that would have gone to replace the carpet, which helped offset the cost of the tile. Long story short, whatever the heck they’re doing, it’s working!

    Of course, I would never condone the firing of someone over a medical condition. But let’s be fair, that’s a 4th-hand story of someone who knew someone who knew someone that was allegedly fired.

    As for the contractor thing, why are you blaming USAA? My company also uses contractors and treats them different from regular employees, just like many others. They’re contractors… Their pay, benefits, perks, etc. are provided by the company they work for, not USAA. My company has a nurse on site for medical checkups and ergonomic exams… Contractors cannot see her. Contractors aren’t allowed to eat for free when the company has an employee appreciation day. Contractors don’t get free company merchandise or holiday gifts from the company. That’s just the benefits of getting hired by a large company.

  27. Jurph says:

    I’m also a long-term satisfied USAA customer. There are some real jerks in the military who like power-tripping, and I can see how the USAA system is ripe for abuse by those folks; it aggravates me that USAA’s costs go up for keeping people like that on their member rolls (and I wish there was a way for USAA to terminate membership for those folks). But for customers like me, who levy few demands, USAA is a godsend. Great service from the bank, great service from the insurance company, great service from the brokerage.

    I’m not surprised the Bushes bank with USAA – both Presidents served active duty, and their service and low fees are as good as Wachovia (but they’ve been doing it longer).

  28. ll07 says:

    ValEl I am glad you finally explained how you know so much about collections. I used to work at USAA too, but never in collections. I was in DSS and was let go. Surely they had to give you some reason for letting you go. I worked there in 2003-2004. Who was your manager? Maybe we worked together? Who knows, it’s a small world.

  29. ll07 says:

    I was in DSS too. It sucked! Who did you work for?

  30. it-is-what-it-is says:

    I’ve worked for USAA for a long time. A lot of what ValE says, I’ve witnessed. We constantly roll based on complaints. Doesn’t matter if you are a long term member (USAA-speak for customer) or not. You DON’T want a file you stood firm on to get to the CEO and be used as an example of an employee who is not “engaged”. Those of you who work there know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.

    SteveXO, you will care when you start talking to employees who have never had any additional training other than a couple of computer modules. Start paying attention to how often you are put on hold so they can “check”. They are looking for someone who can answer your question…ie, someone who has been there more than 5 years (when training was still going to a classroom and with real trainers and NOT a computer). When they have finally chased all the over-40 tenured employees out (ie, downsize, terminated b/c they would not relocate, etc), and all that is left are the computer module trained employees, you will care…and you will shop for other companies.
    And managers giving reps grief for being in the bathroom too long…true. I personally know two people who this happened to. One who was fired and one who quit before they could fire her.

    Ogmaster…you are correct.

    Flconsumer, the Tampa office is just a smaller version…personal lines insurance, claims and service.