Bank of Indifference

Just try getting a little sympathy for a disabled woman when some dollars are at stake

Kathy Brown, 63, a legally blind, wheelchair-borne former Richmond District shopkeeper, is not ordinarily one to complain.

“Talk to me, dear,” she said last week, when I interrupted a doctor's visit with a phone call. She was in the hospital after scheduled hip surgery, and while medicated, was still in pain.

She could have been complaining when she feted at her home officials from the district attorney's office. After all, S.F. law enforcement's months of efforts to track down and prosecute Brown's former caretaker have so far produced nothing. Instead, she served them coffee and cookies, and thanked them profusely for their work.

She's a sweet, optimistic, serenely lucid woman — the kind of person who's quite believable when she recounts a horror story involving Wells Fargo Bank. The institution helped make her life hell during the past winter in order to skim a few extra dimes off an ageing, disabled customer of 38 years. The bank inappropriately pushed an ATM card on Brown, which the bank should have known she was unable to use. When her caregiver then allegedly used the ATM card to rob Brown, Wells Fargo refused requests by police, social workers, and Brown herself to make her whole.

Now that I've spoken with social service providers, a home care worker, a police officer, and an assistant DA, all familiar with Brown's case, I'm convinced our hometown megabank has added a new dimension to the concept of corporate indifference and cruelty.

In response to questions regarding the bank's treatment of Brown, Wells Fargo issued a statement saying, in part, “The matter you described is clearly an unfortunate situation and should never happen to any customer. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We will investigate the situation. For privacy's sake we cannot comment about customer accounts.”

Last spring, shortly after the death of her husband, Brown visited the 20th and Geary Blvd. Wells Fargo branch in the Richmond District where she regularly cashed checks and paid bills. This visit was different, however, than the hundreds of others she had paid at the beginning of the month, every month, for the previous 38 years.

A Wells Fargo employee urged her to stop banking with checks and teller visits. Brown should use an ATM card instead, the employee said. This would make things easier for the bank, and Brown could make purchases with the card, she recalls the employee as saying.

“I've always hated using cards. I never had a card in my name. They sort of pushed it on me. I said, OK. I have no choice. I took the card. They insisted that I take it,” Brown recalls.

The bank official said the card would make it so she didn't have to produce two forms of identification, as she did when banking with tellers.

“It's really interesting to me that suddenly, after nearly four decades, they're like, 'Kathy, we don't know no stinking Kathy,'” said Brown's current caretaker, Claudette Bodin-Cyr.

ATM cards can be a convenience for people who happen to find them easy to use. From the bank's perspective, however, they're a profits generator as they obviate human tellers, saving millions of dollars in salaries.

In this case, the convenience advantage was all the bank's. Brown is legally blind. She has dysfunctional hips that make it difficult for her to approach an ATM machine. So after the Wells Fargo official told her to stop doing her banking in person, Brown gave the card and her personal identification number to her then part-time caretaker, Brandy Rigsby, with instructions to take care of some banking matters.

Rigsby allegedly used the card to systematically rob Brown of all her money, making debit purchases and cash withdrawals at stores and ATM machines in towns where Brown has never been, taking out a $500 cash advance, and racking up $389 in overdraft charges. This left Brown, who somehow lives in San Francisco on $800 per month pension checks, destitute over the winter. Brown said the theft also made it difficult for her to give a proper burial for her husband, who died last March.

After she discovered the theft some months later, Brown moved her bank account to Bank of America. According to Bodin-Cyr, who helps her with banking, Wells Fargo then turned over the debt for Rigsby's $500 cash advance to a bill collector.

“They started calling at eight in the morning,” Brown recalls. “I would fall asleep at eight at night, and they would call at 9 p.m., then at 10 p.m. They said that I owed them money; 'You owe us money.' I said, 'Sorry, I don't have any.'”

A social worker went into the bank, asking that officials do the right thing, and repay the $746.11 because Wells Fargo made it possible for Rigsby to allegedly empty the bank account. The visit produced no result.

Another social service provider wrote a letter to the bank, asking that they pay her back, noting that Brown “feels the actions Wells Fargo has taken were more shocking given the length of time she was a customer.”

Wells Fargo did not respond to the letter.

When a police detective contacted the bank with the same request, the bank refused. “We've gone that route several times,” said SF Police Inspector Earl Wismer. “The current caseworker and I talked to representatives from Wells Fargo, and used that argument. Ms. Brown didn't ask for the card. It was given to her unsolicited. She can't use the card, because she's confined to a wheelchair, and she's legally blind. She can't use the ATM machine that she visits,” the detective said. “I think what it is, is the bank has drawn a line in the sand, and said, from now on we're not going to assume responsibility for these cases where people give up the pin number voluntarily.”

Added S.F. Chief Assistant District Attorney Russ Giuntini, “Basically, the system stalled her out.”

You can say that again.

But there's also shame to be shared by the city of San Francisco in leaving Brown high and dry.

I commend Wismer for going the extra mile in this case by trying to get the bank to make Brown whole. Guintini likewise took commendable extra interest in Brown's case.

But get this: Rigsby is still at large, months after her alleged larceny, though she hasn't exactly disappeared from the face of the earth. Brown's regularly fed police tips as to Rigsby's whereabouts.

In fact, it's Brown who's doing an important share of the investigative work in attempting to track Rigsby down. She's cultivated and maintained sources close to Rigsby's family. She regularly pumps them for information and she feeds it to the police every time she gets a new lead on Rigsby's location.

So far, police in Petaluma and elsewhere have attempted to serve an arrest warrant based on Brown's tips, and in some cases have just missed Rigsby.

When police serve a warrant and miss Rigsby, “she might come back later. But we can't justify waiting for her to come back,” Wismer said. “We simply can't justify it given the resources we have.”

In other words, the dollar amount of Rigsby's alleged theft was the mere equivalent of a cheap laptop boosted from Starbucks. And the SFPD can't spare detectives for out-of-county stakeouts to catch every petty thief.

There's a better way to look at Brown's case, however. When one counts other money she allegedly took from Brown, Rigsby apparently took more than two months income from a bereaved woman who every month barely obtains enough money to live on. The equivalent theft from, say, a Pacific Heights resident would equal many thousands of dollars.

“She left me broke for four months. This was money that had to go for my husband's unveiling, of his burial monument,” Brown said. “That's why I'm pursuing the case so hard. Rigsby cut a lot of things out of my life.”

So perhaps on this occasion we might afford to make an exception to the rules.

I know Wells Fargo can.

“What really killed me was, when all this went down, there was a little article in the Richmond View that said “Wells Fargo donates $20,000 to schools,” recalls Bodin-Cyr. “And they can't eat [the money Rigsby allegedly stole]? Is that right?”

No. It's not right. But it's apparently a Wells Fargo banker's version of sticking to principle.

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