Wells Fargo Keeps Hanging Up On Your Deaf Grandmother


Rachel’s 86-year-old grandmother was a loyal Wells Fargo customer for more than thirty years. She’s been forced to take her business to a new bank because Wells Fargo representatives refuse to talk to her.

See, she became profoundly deaf about twenty years ago, and makes her phone calls through a TTY relay service. A few weeks ago, Wells Fargo customer service reps abruptly stopped accepting relay calls, claiming it was a new fraud prevention policy.

First, a bit of background information on the equipment Rachel refers to in her e-mail. A TTY (also known as a TDD or text telephone) is a device that people with hearing or speech disabilities use to communicate over standard phone lines. They haven’t changed much since the 1980s, but are still in common use. It has a keyboard, a small screen, and sometimes a printer. TTY machine users can call each other, or they can dial in to tax-funded relay services, where a hearing person acts as an intermediary between the parties. (I worked as a relay operator for a while after college. I spent a lot of time getting paid to listen to AOL and Dell’s hold music and be yelled at, and the net effect was that I became a consumer advocate.)

For deaf people with good speech skills, or who lose their hearing later in life like Rachel’s grandmother, there’s a different kind of relay call, which is called voice carry-over, or VCO. The relay operator transcribes one end of the conversation, and then the caller just speaks directly to the other party. Many people who only make this type of call have a specialized VCO phone, which has a screen but no keyboard.

That’s the background. Here’s Rachel’s story.

Thought I’d drop you a line about a little problem my grandmother is having with her Wells Fargo. My grandmother is 86 years old and became profoundly Deaf about 20 or so years ago. She uses a special kind of TTY machine specifically for people in her situation – she can speak clearly, but she just can’t hear over the phone. It’s called Voice-Carry- Over service. She’s been calling Wells Fargo this way since she first got her machine. She’s had an account with them for over 30 years.

Just in the past two weeks or so, however, she can no longer speak to a banking representative. They give this long-winded speech about how they can no longer accept ‘third-party’ relay calls (which, you know, all relay calls are third party, since there is an operator acting as a translator, hence the point of the whole service). They want her to use the Internet (she doesn’t have a computer) or go to a banking center (which would require her to schedule a ride with the disabled transport service in her city) or they want to transfer her to a TTY line, just to check her account balance.

The last option may sound (sort of) reasonable, with one glaring problem – my grandmother doesn’t have a normal TTY machine. She has a VCO machine. It doesn’t have a keyboard. She can’t type to a TTY operator, she can only speak on the phone. Connecting to a TTY line would be utterly pointless. That’s why she uses the relay service to handle these calls for her.

It seems to me the Americans with Disabilities Act requires equal treatment under the law. If a person like me can call a regular banking rep and get my account information, she has the right to do the same, relay service or no relay service. She doesn’t have this problem with anybody else – she can call Social Security, her pharmacist, her doctor, etc, and they can all accept relay calls without batting an eye. I was confused as to why Wells Fargo felt they were an exception to this rule.

When I called to get some clarification, the rep I talked to cited problems with fraud. I feel bad that Wells Fargo is unable to secure their accounts against fraudulent calls (something we should all be worried about if we have an account there?), but that seems like an internal problem rather than something my grandmother should have to deal with. She can prove her identity five ways from Sunday – no sweat. She’s been calling her bank for nearly 20 years using the relay service and never had even a hint that her account was in any way compromised.

The Wells Fargo reps keep hanging up on her and she finds this all very upsetting. She just needs to know about her accounts, but apparently, Wells Fargo doesn’t feel that’s a service it needs to offer to its disabled customers. I’m going to go help her close her account there this weekend and see if we can get her set up somewhere else. It’s something neither of us want to deal with, but we’re at our wits’ end. Anyway, I just thought I’d send this out as a warning to all your readers out there. Don’t bother opening account if you can’t hear on the phone – they clearly don’t want your business.

The only type of relay fraud that I know of is Nigerian scammers using Web-based relay systems to call and steal from American businesses. This was a serious problem starting six or seven years ago, so why the sudden policy change now? And why should a ban on relay calls due to Nigerian fraudsters affect old ladies with long-standing accounts whose voices you can hear on the phone?

One nifty alternate option for current VCO users is Captioned Telephone, which uses speech recognition technology instead of slow and error-prone humans with keyboards. Or people could keep using the technology they’re comfortable with, and Wells Fargo could just stop being such jerks about it.

Please Don’t Hang Up [New York Relay]
Disconnected? [Baltimore City Paper]
Captioned Telephone [Official Site]

Capital One Hates Deaf People
The Ideal Woman Versus Ford’s Dickhead Steve

(Photo: Weitbrecht Communications)