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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

It could happen to you too.

Guest post by Jon Stokes

My pregnant wife just called me a few hours ago from SFO as she was boarding an airplane to Austin, TX. "I got an email from Chase saying that our checking account is overdrawn, and all our assets are frozen. None of our cards work. They gave me some number to call."

Of course, I flipped out. But I also knew immediately what had happened. I'm currently disputing a laughably bogus 2007 income tax bill with the MA Department of Revenue, a state in which I have not lived or earned income in since 2003. I live in CA, and the Chase account in question was opened in Chicago. But I had a sinking feeling that, in the world of the multinational megabank, niceties like state borders don't matter anymore. My guess was that MA had called Chase (they have not sued me or sent me any sort of court order) and Chase just handed over all our assets there to MA.

A call to the number provided, a visit to my local branch, and ultimately an on-the-record discussion with someone from Chase's executive office confirmed that I was mostly right. The MA Department of Revenue had filed a levy against me in MA, and when the state notified Chase of the levy, Chase dutifully froze everything but (lucky me!) has not yet transfered any money out. The perky Chase lady on the phone told me that on March 4, unless MA has lifted the levy, Chase will clean out my accounts and hand everything over to MA. Again, I have not lived in MA or earned income in that state since 2003, and I worked with a CPA to pay all of my state and federal 2007 taxes in full and on time. I did everything 100% by the book, and yet here I am in 2013, with a negative bank balance and frozen assets.

Welcome to America, 2013, where bankrupt states aggressively pursue long-gone former residents with insane tax bills and levies, and where the banks, as a matter of official policy, will hand over every last dime in your account without even knowing or caring whether the request is valid and enforceable.

Here's a bit more background, so you can understand how crazy this all is.

I moved from Massachusetts to Illinois in 2003, and I opened my Chase account there in 2005. I also hired a CPA and dutifully paid all of my state and local tax, in full, every year including 2007. I moved further west to California in 2008, so imagine my shock when in January of last year, I got a letter from the MA Department of Revenue claiming that I owed them a jaw-dropping sum for 2007. Again, I hadn't lived there or worked there since 2003, but I did own part of a business that was headquartered in MA, and the state was using this fact to harass me for income tax money. How much money? At least 10X what I'd actually owe them if I really did owe them income tax for 2007; or, to put it another way, roughly 10X what I paid Illinois in 2007 on the advice of my Illinois CPA.

I didn't just let this nasty MA tax claim ride, thinking it would go away. I put my California CPA to work on it, I hired a tax attorney in MA, and I even hired a CPA malpractice attorney to go after my Illinois CPA on the slim chance that Massachusetts is actually right and I do owe them something. I filed appeals, submitted papers, and generally stayed on top of it. So I wasn't overly alarmed when a few weeks ago, the MA Dept. of Revenue sent me a notice that they were filing a tax lien against me with the MA Secretary of State's office. But I didn't freak out, because hey, this is part of an ongoing dispute where they're clearly way out of line, and I have some very good people working with me on this... and besides, I don't own any property in MA, so what are they going to do?

And then, without even sending me a copy of any kind of court order or document, they've suddenly frozen and are on the verge of confiscating all of the funds in my out-of-state bank account.

After talking to Chase, my next call was to the MA tax attorney that I'd hired to fight with MA over their insane tax bill.

"I've dealt with this once before, with Bank of America. And the guy was in California, just like you. Chase Manhattan is not supposed to freeze an out-of-state account like this, and MA knows it. But MA does this because they know they can get away with it."

I then headed down to my local Chase branch, and where I talked to their legal department and got them to confirm that this is their policy. I also played the journalist card and got them to put me in touch with someone from their executive office who could speak on the record.

"The management stands behind the decision to freeze your account," she said. She argued that because Chase has a minor presence in MA (a few non-branch offices), they're subject to MA jurisdiction and have to comply with the order to freeze my account, regardless of where the account was opened or is currently located. She also said that I had agreed to all of this madness when signing up for the account, as part of Chase's terms of service.

Apparently, my contract with Chase stipulates that Chase will turn over any of my assets to anyone who comes knocking with any kind of official-looking levy or lien, and Chase "does not have to determine whether the legal process [behind the request] is valid or enforceable." They just hand over all your money, and if the request was bogus then that's not their problem, it's yours.

There is nothing I can do at this point but file an appeal with MA, and hope the freeze gets lifted before Chase turns over our frozen assets on March 4th.

And I'm one of the lucky ones. We use a foreign bank for the vast majority of our assets, and keep only a small amount in Chase for bills and such. Even if Chase hands over all of the money in our accounts to MA, the worst thing that wil happen is that my wife will be stuck in Austin for three days with only an American Express card (which hopefully still works) and/or that I'll have to send her some of the cash we keep on-hand for emergencies via Western Union. Oh, and I'll have to pay a ton of legal fees to recover the money, which would probably end up costing me more than MA took. So I may just have to let MA rob my bank account, with the bank's help, of course.