Saturday, May 17, 2008

No Way to Run a Railroad

About a month ago, Citizens Funds (nee Working Assets), was acquired by Sentinel Investments, based out of Montpelier VT. As it happens, I manage a six-digit risk pool for the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) and up until the acquisition we had been using Citizens Funds as the main vehicle for depositing contributions and loan payments.

The transition to Sentinel has been anything but smooth. Leaving aside the extent to which Sentinel is an equivalent choice as a Socially Responsible Investment (an important consideration to FEC), I want to write about how bigger does not necessarily mean more competent.

I was first notified of the transfer of accounts (from Citizens Funds instruments to equivalent Semntinel Investments instruments) by letter in mid-April. When I spoke with a Sentinel rep on the phone, I was told that the old checks (on my money market account) and deposits made out to "Citizens Funds" would be honored through the end of the month. After that everything would need to change. New checks would be mailed to me before the end of the month. I asked about how to make deposits in the new account, and was told how over the phone. I was uneasy with the realization that no information about this (or deposit slips) had been sent to me and that I was the one who thought of that question—the letter explaining the transfer neglected to cover that operational detail. Yet what could I do?

I had phone transfer privileges with Citizens for redeeming funds or moving money among accounts. Knowing that I wanted the same ease of operation with Sentinel, I asked how to set that up. The guy on the phone told me it wouldn't be a problem: just send them a letter requesting those privileges.

I drafted the letter April 22, and emailed it to an FEC corporate officer to sign and submit. I then left on a trip for two weeks—hoping that everything would be in place upon my return. No such luck. On May 6, there was a letter from Sentinel waiting for me, explaining that the request for phone transfer privileges needed to have a medallion signature guarantee and b
e accompanied by a corporate resolution. Grr. The Sentinel guy on the phone mid-April might have mentioned those requirements. (What's the point of having customer service reps who don't know the correct answers?)

On the other hand, having the phone privileges would only have been of limited use because I had not yet received the checks that had been promised. Unfortunately, by May 6 I needed to write two checks. I was dead in the water.

After another phone call to Sentinel (to make sure that I now correctly understood the protocol for establishing phone transfer privileges), I scrambled to figure out where I could secure a medallion signature guarantee without a special trip to town. It looked like I was going to have everything lined up, and then it struck me: why would Sentinel honor my signature on checks? After all, they inherited me as a customer; I hadn't applied for an account. So I went back to the well and called Sentinel again: "Will you honor my signature on the new checks you're sending me?" Answer: no. Holy moley! Apparently they were just going to wait to inform me of that little nuance until after someone sent one of my checks for collection. How could they take over all the Citizens Funds accounts and not think of that?!?

A few deep breaths (and expostulations) later, I asked that a signature card be sent to me. "No problem," I was told. By now I was three days away from my departure for a six-week trip, and knew that there wasn't sufficient time to receive the signature card at home. Not wanting those overdue checks to be stalled for an additional six weeks, I asked that the signature card be mailed to where I'll be this coming Monday. "Uh," came the reply, "We can only mail things to the registered address for the account." [More deep breathing.]

I can understand why mutual funds do allow redemption checks to be mailed to exotic addresses, but blank signature cards? What possible security problem can they be protecting against? Do they think at all about what they're doing? I had my doubts.

It is now the middle of May. I still don't have checks for my money market account, have not been allowed to use the old checks since May 1, have no acceptable signature on record, and no phone transfer privileges. Other that that, everything is going fine. I am allowed to make deposits.

How is this company in business? I have no idea.

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