The IT issues at the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund, one of the nations largest private retirement systems, have once again reared an ugly head.
Increasing problems with TIAA-CREF forwarded to eWEEK from disgruntled customers, coupled with a seemingly large number of complaints filed with TIAA-CREFs New York oversight board, point to still unresolved issues at one of the nations largest pension fund holders.
Andrew Mais, a spokesperson for the New York State Insurance Department, confirmed Oct. 20 that consumers have filed 21 individual complaints against TIAA-CREF since the beginning of 2006. Of those, nine are still pending.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, another oversight board for TIAA-CREF, said in an earlier interview that it does not comment on individual companies, though customers have confirmed theyve filed complaints with the SEC as well.
Nearly a year ago, just before Thanksgiving 2005, TIAA-CREF customers noticed something was amiss with their pension funds.
Over the following several months, the situation escalated to the point where thousands of pensioners were denied access to their retirement funds with customer accounting nightmares not far behind.
Once-devoted customers felt forced to lodge formal complaints with regulatory authorities to get some relief. And customers started talking to the media.
The venerable company, fast losing cachet, was forced to admit serious IT problems.
In April of this year, TIAA-CREF officials sat down with eWEEK to explain their side of the story.
The issues at the company stemmed from a botched implementation of a new IT system, Open Plan Solutions, a commercial platform that looks to integrate the companys legacy annuity, mutual fund and other service offerings into a single system.
But by the time TIAA-CREF started publicly addressing the issues, many of the major problems seemed to have been solved.
An informal customer survey conducted by eWEEK in late spring showed most of the customers that initially contacted the magazine felt their issues had been resolved.
TIAA-CREF seemed to enjoy only a temporary reprieve. By mid-summer, customers began reaching out once again.
The e-mails continued at a steady pace, with a number of complaints still around account access.
“It really is astounding that after more than a year of these problems [TIAA-CREF] has been unable to solve them,” wrote TIAA-CREF customer John Conybeare in an Oct. 20 e-mail to eWEEK.
“I have been locked out of my main TIAA-CREF retirement account for four months, unable to do any transactions….The TIAA system does not let you talk to anyone other than telephone service representatives who just promise more investigations, never with any result or a call back.”
Conybeare has filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and is seeking other means of redress.
Marge Popp, a database administrator and longtime TIAA-CREF member, filed a complaint with NYSID earlier this summer.
In October, Popp spoke with eWEEK regarding her ongoing issues with TIAA-CREF, which amount to an inability to move funds from one account to another, the inability to access funds for stock transactions, and the small matter of a $100,000 accounting error.
Not that the money was missing, Popp believes; rather it didnt show up on her personal TIAA-CREF Web page.
“I manage all of my investments over the Web, so if those [asset] reports arent captured, it drives me crazy,” said Popp, in Corvallis, Ore.
“My problem…took over six months to resolve, and I am convinced the only reason it was solved was because I was on the phone with [TIAA-CREF] almost every day.
“Then once the claim was filed [with NYSID], things went much, much faster—then [TIAA-CREF] got some real troubleshooters involved.”
NYSIDs Mais said that once a complaint is filed against a company such as TIAA-CREF, an investigator is assigned to that case.
The investigator works with the company, as well as the consumer, to solve the issue.
Mais declined to comment on whether 21 complaints in less than a year is a significant amount, or if further action is warranted.
“We are aware TIAA-CREF has had some problems with their migration to a new computer platform,” said Mais, in New York.
“We are being kept apprised of the problems and are monitoring the situation, as well as resolving any complaints of which we become aware.”
Popp said that the only reason she was aware of an issue in the first place was because she tried to transact against her account.
Another customer who declined to be identified said in a September e-mail to eWEEK that his monthly retirement check from TIAA-CREF did not arrive on the first of September, and when it did, he did not receive the correct amount.
“Instead of $2,888 … I received a deposit to my bank for $104,” wrote the customer.
“No explanation or reason given. My phone calls finally yielded the statement that [TIAA-CREFs] money market account does not have the money to send me, even though my statements correctly indicate that it holds over $15,000 of my money. Is this not called insolvent?”
NYSIDs Mais said the organization would never comment on insolvency.
A copy of a letter a Lehigh University employee sent to the schools TIAA-CREF administrator in June was obtained by eWEEK.
It suggests the actions of TIAA-CREF as a fiduciary agent for Lehigh are “suspect.”
“Sixty days of their inability to post a payroll deduction that has been constant for 130 months is a serious breach of [TIAA-CREFs] responsibility,” reads the letter.
“And now the missing Web account balance problem is back. I have never heard of nor experienced a major financial institution that cannot rectify a customers account inquiry within one day, if not hours.
“This would never happen at Vanguard or Fidelity. Ive dealt with them for years. I suspect that my problem is indicative of a huge internal problem across thousands of accounts.”
Howard Stern, another TIAA-CREF customer who had difficulty accessing funds, told eWEEK in late June that he too feels TIAA-CREF is willfully violating its requirements as a fiduciary.
“And they are getting away with it, unless people are suing them,” said Stern.
“Its like a bank that wont give you your money. Not that theyre saying its not your money, they just wont give it to you.”
David Dunne, vice president, Institutional Client Services, is in charge of the Open Plan Solutions implementation at TIAA-CREF.
He said that nothing has changed with the systems migration, other than more progress has been made.
“Weve migrated 3.2 million contracts onto the platform, and are continuing to aggressively move [customers] to the platform,” said Dunne, in New York.
“It just might be possible that we are going to continue to have problems with unique institutions as we go through this. We are not going to move through without some bumps. We think we have been able to solve the problems from last year.”
Dunne said the company remains on track to sunset its old IT system by the end of the first quarter in 2007.
He also said TIAA-CREF has put a big issue resolution team in place, so that as the company learns about problems they are able to resolve problems.
“We are working night and day to get things done,” he said. “Its possible that there are still some problems given the scale of the implementation.”
That may well be the case, and for the most part, customers are willing to give TIAA-CREF—a company with a stellar reputation prior to last years IT snafus—the benefit of doubt. But only for while longer.
“[TIAA-CREF] tried to do this conversion, and theyre just having enormous problems. It shouldnt be this difficult. There is incompetence at that organization at some level to allow a conversion to get away from them like they did,” said Popp.
“I can forgive them some very bad choices in technology, but if this isnt resolved in a year or so, like everybody else Ill re-evaluate [my options].”