Bank closes customer’s account after being accused of racial profiling
■ Robin Underwood / Contributed
A strange case of a apparent racial profiling has resulted in a local bank closing a customer’s account after he and his daughter complained about the treatment they received from bank employees.
The incident happened to 56-year-old Brenda Ozuna of Temecula, and her father, 76 year-old Fred Ortman Sr. of Hemet last Aug. 17.
Ortman reportedly walked into his bank on East Florida Avenue for a modest withdrawal, something he had done frequently with his other children. This time, however, his daughter Brenda was accompanying him.
While Ortman’s wife and son waited in the car, Ortman, who is in fragile health, was helped into the bank by his daughter, Brenda. He wanted to complete a change of address form and one granting his daughter power of attorney before making the withdrawal. Ortman’s complexion appears more white, while his daughter Brenda appears to be African American, or black.
Ozuna states that she immediately felt the uneasy sensation of all eyes on them as they entered the bank, since employees were staring at them as soon as they entered the lobby. Brushing off the glares, Ozuna slowly escorted her father to the desk with a banking representative sitting behind it, just to the right of the teller booths.
Offering to introduce herself to the nearest available representative while asking for her father’s intended forms, Ozuna claims she was awkwardly ignored while the woman spoke directly to her father by name. Instead of asking what they needed, the banker asked Ortman to walk back across the lobby in order to speak with someone named Kim. He was told Kim would help him with his needs.
Before they could ever get over to speak with Kim, however, the pair was surrounded by three bank employees and one security guard who abruptly surrounded them and proceeded to demand that Ortman follow them to another part of the bank to answer some questions. According to Ozuna, they took the fragile Ortman by the arm and attempted to guide him toward the back of the bank against both his will and that of his daughter. Ozuna was bluntly asked to leave her father’s side and wait outside in the parking lot until further notice. She refused.
Ortman explained that all he wanted to do was make a withdrawal while repeating that Ozuna was, in fact, his daughter. Ozuna allegedly was told by a staff member at the time: “That can’t be your daughter,” as she was of a varied degree darker than her father’s complexion. This is what initially sparked alarm for Ozuna.
She and her father were separated for approximately 37 minutes, all the while both of them protested to being separated and virtually held for questioning.
While refusing to go outside and leave her fragile father inside, Ozuna says she continued her efforts to try to de-escalate the situation. She made various attempts to show her personal identification, even offering her social security and bank ATM cards as a last resort. The bank would have none of it, she says. When that didn’t help, she says she then asked to speak to senior management. Finally, she asked that bank employees call the police. All requests were either ignored or refused, she says.
Finally, the banking representative questioning Ortman left his office. Behind him, Ortman tried to lift himself – albeit unsuccessfully – out of the chair they had placed him in. As Ozuna pushed past the door to assist her father up, she asked him what had happened. Angrily, he exclaimed, “Let’s just get out of here – now!”
Baffled and confused, Ozuna and Ortman left that day without any answers to the questions they had posed. About a month later, however, on Sept. 12, Ozuna says she received a call from the bank’s customer care executive within the office of the president of the bank. He offered up an apology and acknowledged how employees at the Hemet branch should have “handled the situation very differently.”
However, the incident didn’t stop there. It turns out someone at the bank had called Adult Protective Services who came out and visited Ortman in person at his home as part of a follow-up investigation. Apparently the bank filed a complaint about what had transpired on Aug. 17. According to Ozuna, the bank had made a number of false statements to the county case worker, who told her she was closing the case, but would make her boss aware of the “outlandish” allegations made by the bank.
To make matters worse, Ortman on Aug. 29 had received a letter from the bank prior to the case worker’s visit. The letter came from the bank’s Investigations Fraud Management department and said that all Ortman’s accounts would be closed! The letter said those at the bank “do not believe it is in best interest of the bank to continue… relationship with … [the] bank.” The action was said to be taken per terms stated in the agreement Ortman had signed upon opening his accounts which read: “…either you or the bank can close the accounts at any time.”
Ozuna maintains that the above incidents have caused an emotional strain on both her and her father and says that in all her years she has never been treated more unfairly. She believes the whole incident was started, and is directly related to, the color of her skin. It is unclear what exactly was behind the detention and questioning of Ortman that caused the bank to separate father from daughter, but one wonders if they suspected, incorrectly it turns out, that Ozuna was trying to somehow take advantage of an elderly customer.
Editor’s Note: While the Valley Chronicle contacted the bank to get its side of the story, the company’s communications director had not returned our request for comment by press time. Until we hear both sides of the story, we have reluctantly chosen to withhold the name of the bank pending further investigation.