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Meet Fee-Fighting Vigilante Molly Katchpole

She took on Bank of America and then Verizon over fees By Minda Zetlin

If it weren’t for Molly Katchpole, we might all be paying some sort of fee for using our debit cards.

In October 2011, Bank of America announced its intention to charge some customers who used debit cards $5 a month for the privilege, and several other large banks said they planned a similar move. It was Katchpole, a recent college graduate working two part-time jobs, who posted a petition on Change.org demanding that the bank rescind the fee that forced the bank to change plans.

“The American people bailed out Bank of America during a financial crisis the banks helped create. And now your bank is profiting,” read the petition. Four-and-a-half weeks and 306,000 signatures later, Bank of America announced it was canceling its controversial fee.

Fast forward to Dec. 29, 2011, when Verizon Wireless announced it would begin charging customers $2 for making one-time credit or debit card payments online or over the phone using its automated system. The move was intended to force customers into using its auto-pay option instead. This time, instead of weeks, it took less than a day for Verizon to reverse its course. The mobile giant changed its mind after another petition posted by Katchpole collected more than 160,000 signatures in less than 12 hours.

CreditCards.com caught up with Katchpole to talk about her motivations and her personal finance philosophy.

CreditCards.com: What inspired you to start the petition against the Bank of America debit card fee?

Molly Katchpole: I was hanging around online reading the news, and saw Bank of America was planning this new fee in early 2012. They didn’t really give any explanation, and I couldn’t think of any except that they wanted more profit. So I went to Change.org. I had signed a couple of petitions there and knew they’d had a lot of victories in the past. I wrote up a petition, it went up and within a couple of days it had tens of thousands of signatures.

After about a week, I closed my bank account. The media really liked that, and I started getting a lot of press attention for it. I think I became the face of the whole thing. Sometimes when there’s a lot of customer upheaval, there’s no face to it, but I think that’s what I was.

After about two and a half weeks, a Bank of America executive called me up. He wanted to explain the fee to me, and we talked on the phone for about 25 minutes. It was a weird conversation because I didn’t really believe anything he said. It all sounded very scripted.

CreditCards.com: What explanation did he give?

Molly Katchpole: He said that they wanted to be more transparent with their fees. But that’s not an actual reason. They’re trying to be more transparent with their fees so they’re announcing this one, but it doesn’t explain the fee itself. To be honest, I think Bank of America handled the whole situation very poorly. It took them a while to say anything at all. It was like a train wreck for them.

After a month, three other big banks that had been [intending] to impose a debit card fee backed down, and after three more days, Bank of America backed down, too.

CreditCards.com: What do you think made it possible for you to have such a huge effect?

Molly Katchpole: Change.org was wonderful because it has a huge email list. It’s a way to reach a lot of people who sign petitions. Occupy Wall Street was going really strong at the time and that had a lot to do with it. Bank Transfer Day, a movement for people to transfer their accounts from big banks to community banks or credit unions had been announced, so that certainly helped. You had hundreds of thousands of people leaving their banks. They were getting awful press.

It also had a lot to do with the timing. They had just raked in $2 billion of profit the previous quarter. And a lot of people in America are in a really bad slump right now, deeply in debt or with their houses underwater. I don’t think they were expecting the amount of backlash they got.

CreditCards.com: With Verizon Wireless, it took less than a day for the company to cancel its plan to impose its $2 billing fee. And it appears the phrase that scared them out of it was “Molly Katchpole.”

Molly Katchpole: I would love to think that! But people were extremely upset. The petition I put up was doing even better than the Bank of America one had. A lot of people say that big companies don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff. They absolutely pay attention. When I talked to the Bank of America executive, he said they noticed my petition the first day or two that it was up.

A petition is a concrete collection of people who are upset. You don’t have to look on Twitter or Facebook to see how many people are upset, although you can do that, too. But Verizon could see over 160,000 people had signed the petition. I think that definitely had something to do with their decision. Verizon was also being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission over the fee.

CreditCards.com: You had two part-time jobs at the time the Bank of America fee was announced. What were they?

Molly Katchpole: I was a nanny. I was also working for a political public relations firm, which was just me and one other woman. It was really great, but it was freelance and it varied each week.

CreditCards.com: Do you think working for that PR firm gave you insight into how to do this?

Molly Katchpole: No. And when I was in college, I didn’t study anything that had to do with politics. My degree is in art and architectural history. But I was always an activist at heart, and I’ve been using Twitter for a long time. I’ve been using social networks and the Internet since I was in middle school. I think my generation is programmed to use the Internet for this kind of stuff.

CreditCards.com: So anyone could do what you did?

Molly Katchpole: Yes. I really want people to do it, but we need to be strategic and not go after every single thing. There’s something to be said for writing down how you’re feeling about something. If you look at the petitions, I list why the fees are wrong. I think that’s an effective approach. We need to be able to mix emotions with facts and hard lines of reasons. We need to be as strategic as these companies are being.

CreditCards.com: What are you doing now?

Molly Katchpole: I’m a fellow at a nonprofit called Rebuild the Dream. I’m on a team that creates campaigns and petitions. I’d been following Rebuild the Dream since it started and had applied for a fellowship but not heard back. Then I did hear back at the end of the first petition — I think maybe they saw it — and they hired me as a fellow.

CreditCards.com: What is your own personal finance philosophy?

My personal finance philosophy all along has been to live below my means. So just because I can afford to go out every day and get coffee at Dunkin Donuts, or go out to eat two nights a week, doesn’t mean that I should. I learned that from my parents.

Molly Katchpole: That’s a really interesting question that I’ve never been asked. I absolutely do! I grew up in a working, middle-class family and learned a lot from my parents. My mother was excellent at handling our money and my parents had beyond perfect credit. They knew how important it is to be as financially independent as possible.

When I was in high school, I always had a job. When I was in college, I had a work-study job as part of my financial aid. I worked in the summers. My personal finance philosophy all along has been to live below my means. So just because I can afford to go out every day and get coffee at Dunkin Donuts, or go out to eat two nights a week, doesn’t mean that I should. I learned that from my parents. Our vacations were always a lot of fun. We would go to Vermont and have a little cabin for a week, but it was never extravagant.

My dad’s a machinist and my mom’s a physical therapist’s assistant. There weren’t tons of extras, but we lived very comfortably. I’m worried that people in my generation who are working those types of jobs might not be able to do that.

CreditCards.com: Do you have a lot of student debt from college?

Molly Katchpole: I have a 15-year repayment and $60,000 in debt. That sucks, and I don’t necessarily think it should be that way, but that’s how it is for me right now.

I’ve been at my job since the end of November, so I’m still in a grace period for paying back these loans, and am trying to save up money so I can pay them back. I have two private student loans and unsubsidized and subsidized Stafford federal loans. On one of my student loans, I owe $180 a month, and on the other $190 a month. I think when I consolidate my Stafford loans they will total about the same. If you pay a little more each month, it goes straight to principal. So I made the decision that I’m going to make it a nice and easy round number: $200 a month for each of those loans. That way, I can reduce the principal more quickly.

CreditCards.com: If you could imagine the perfect job for you to be in 10 years from now, what would it be?

Molly Katchpole: Working to uphold the working and middle class and make sure they don’t wither away is really, really important to me. I’d like to be able to do that.

I would also really like to be a teacher. Actually, there are a lot of different things that I’m interested in and am feeling it all out right now. I don’t know where I’m going to be in 10 years. And I’m OK with that.


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