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Consumer Watch: Learn to keep detailed financial records

Feb. 3, 2011 - 01:28PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 3, 2011 - 01:28PM  |  
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Marine Corps Capt. Jonathon Rowles and his wife, Julia, have always meticulously documented all correspondence relating to their mortgage, credit cards and other household accounts.

"You have to be in control of your finances, because a bank is not going to protect your interests," Julia Rowles said. "If you don't manage your records, no one else is going to do it for you."

They certainly never thought Capt. Rowles would wind up suing Chase Home Finance for allegedly violating his rights under the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act. But after doing so, the couple's careful documentation has helped his case.

Not only has it helped the family avoid foreclosure, but it's also a big factor behind some $2 million in refunds being paid to 4,000 military homeowners. Chase, which admits it made mistakes, is also resolving the cases of 14 service members whose homes were improperly foreclosed on.

"We thought this was an isolated issue with an accounting error," Julia Rowles said.

After Capt. Rowles filed his lawsuit last July, Chase officials said they intensified an internal audit of the company's actions on mortgages where homeowners had asked for a reduction to 6 percent interest, as is their right under the SCRA.

The lawsuit is ongoing in federal court in South Carolina. Capt. Rowles contends that Chase violated the SCRA by not giving him the reduction in interest rate retroactive to the date he entered active duty — Jan. 22, 2006 — and that the bank required him to repeatedly re-apply for the reduction.

He alleges the bank's aggressive collection tactics included threats to make adverse reports to the credit reporting agencies and to foreclose on his house. He contends he continued to make payments, but Chase repeatedly refused to credit them.

Throughout, he and his wife have documented their actions and the bank's actions, just as they do with other creditors. And while you might never face a situation like theirs, we all can learn from Julia Rowles' tips:

• Check each bill for accuracy every month. "Just because you get a statement, it doesn't mean it's right," she said. "If there is any question, you need to call."

She said it took months for the bank to adjust the couple's mortgage payment "to anywhere near what the loan was supposed to look like. Then we'd get a statement the next month and it was wrong."

• When you make a phone call about a bill, write down the content of the conversation, the date and time, and the name of the person who gave you the information.

If the problem is not resolved, it can help later if you can tell the company you called previously, with times and names.

"We have proof we called month in, month out," she said.

• File your documentation, along with any correspondence the creditor or company has sent you.

This is especially important for military families, in which handling of the finances may switch off during deployments. "If he was gone and I needed to manage the account, I know what's already happened," Julia Rowles said. "There are times I can't get hold of my husband for days at a time."

Capt. Rowles was a financial planner and stockbroker before he sold his small business to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming an aviator, she said.

"That financial planning background cemented his desire to keep documentation," she said.

The couple's 400-page Chase mortgage file fills a 3-inch binder. It includes every mortgage statement, correspondence, copies of the original loan document, and bank statements and canceled checks showing that payments were made.

• Be persistent — although that can exact a toll. "We spent at least five hours a week," she said. "That was home time after he comes home from work, when I need him and the kids need him."

And while Capt. Rowles was deployed to South Korea as a weapons system officer in an F-18, Julia Rowles was handling the bank issues, in between taking care of their children, Emily, 2½, and Tyler, 5 months.

"It's been a four-year battle for us, emotionally and financially," she said. "If they foreclose on our house, it could risk our security clearance. It's not just you and the creditor. It's you and the creditor and your command. It's been a nightmare. Every day we were talking about Chase."

• Take advantage of information provided on benefits, and know your responsibilities in getting those benefits. Capt. Rowles listened during classes at Officer Candidate School when legal officers gave a briefing on the SCRA, so he knew that it's up to the individual to apply for the interest rate reduction for debts incurred before active-duty service begins.

"Nobody's going to give you this. You have to do it yourself," Julia Rowles said. "He called up Chase and faxed in his orders."

She emphasizes "this is not just an officer's benefit. It's a service member benefit."

Retired Air Force Reserve Col. John Odom, a Louisiana attorney who is an expert on the SCRA, said other military families can learn a valuable lesson.

"I'm really proud of this Marine Corps wife," Odom said. "She really had her act together. This is the way you do it."

Questions? Comments? kjowers@militarytimes.com?subject=Consumer%20Watch:%20Learn%20to%20keep%20detailed%20financial%20records">E-mail kjowers@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Karen Jowers.

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