Bamboozled: Struggling to give back

BB brandingMost of the time, the Bamboozled mailbox is stuffed with consumer complaints.

About contractors. About retailers and utilities. About red tape that blocks consumers from getting through to government agencies.

But every once in a while, it has a note from someone who wants to do something nice.

Not for personal gain. Just… because.

Such was a note we received last month from Ruth Bellocchio of Pluckemin, who said she felt she was being Bamboozled for trying to do the right thing.

Bellocchio, 92, said she doesn’t travel much anymore. Still, she accumulates airline miles on two of her credit cards. She said she doesn’t expect she will ever use them.

“I am asking for your help in giving my Delta SkyMiles to a Marine and his family,” she wrote in a good, old-fashioned snail mail letter.

91613In her letter, Bellocchio said during a shopping trip last spring, she met a man who’s active in the Raritan VFW. That man told her about a Marine who lives in Hoboken, but would soon be assigned away from his family.

Bellocchio said she immediately thought of her accumulated Delta SkyMiles and the good they could do for this Marine.

“I didn’t want to sell the miles,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone else to give them to.”

She wanted to give them to the Marine and his family, and she said she’s been trying to do just that since the spring.

Bellocchio said she’s called all the phone numbers she could find for Delta, but none of the representatives were able to help her give away the miles to this man.

Finally, she contacted Bamboozled.

“Would you please assist me to help one of our servicemen?” she asked.

We contacted Delta to learn more about the process of donating miles.

The airline has many charitable organizations it partners with so passengers can donate their miles, a spokesman said. Two of them are military-related, and they help provide tickets to wounded military members, veterans and their loved ones.

To donate miles to an individual, she’d need at least 25,000 miles, the spokesman said. But to donate to one of the groups, she’d only need 1,000 miles.

The spokesman then helped put Bellocchio in contact with a Delta representative who could assist her.

A few days later, it was done.

“Delta said I only have 8,500-some-odd miles,” she said, disappointed that it wasn’t enough to give privately to the Marine she was told about. “I’m probably going to give them to Luke’s Wings.”

The Delta website says that organization “provides airline tickets to wounded veterans and their loved ones as well as final flights to unite veterans in hospice care with their families.”

Bamboozled thanks Bellocchio for wanting to give, and for being patient in her quest to do so.


When Bamboozled covers a topic, it’s common that we receive e-mails and letters from readers who have gone through experiences that are similar to those profiled in the column.

While many dilemmas are worthy of help, sheer volume means we’re unable to help everyone who writes in.

But there are some topics that we can’t let go.

We received a note from Charlie and Mary Van De Mark of Caldwell in August.

Their daughter, Caroline, died of brain cancer June 26 — a month after her graduation from East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania.

Caroline was diagnosed with glioblastoma June 4, 2006, her father said. He said her doctors felt they could control the cancer, even though the prognosis is usually 12 to 18 months.

He said Caroline was enrolled in a clinical trial, and she did well, and even kept a great attitude despite the medical challenges.

She pursued a psychology degree.

“She wanted to help children that had serious illnesses,” he said.

Caroline left behind her family and friends, but she also left behind college loans that were co-signed by her parents.

The Van De Marks remembered stories written by Bamboozled in which Sallie Mae forgave the student loans of borrowers who had died, even when there was a co-signer.

Charlie Van De Mark said he started to call Sallie Mae about his daughter’s loans — with a balance of more than $34,000 — in the first week of August.

He said the first rep said he would be held responsible for the payments. He kept calling.

“On August 8 or 9, I spoke to a person by the name of Shane. She told me the loans were going to be waived and I would be getting a letter regarding the loans,” he said.

He called again Aug. 13, and was again told the loans were his responsibility.

“I kept calling and (next) was told that the loans were suspended,” he said. “I made two payments of $157.30 after Caroline had died. I am not sure if I am current because of the suspension.”

The Van De Marks still didn’t receive any letters from Sallie Mae about the loans, so they didn’t know how the loans were being handled.

They contacted Bamboozled, hoping for clarification.

Some of you may say that if the couple co-signed the loans, they should be held responsible for the payments.

But Sallie Mae hasn’t always seen it that way. In the past, the lender has forgiven such loans, or they’ve come up with agreements that co-signers were not permitted to disclose to Bamboozled.

And new Sallie Mae loans have a special provision in the case of the primary borrower’s death.

Sallie Mae launched the Smart Option Student Loan in March 2009. Among other benefits, this loan provides automatic loan forgiveness if a primary borrower dies.

Older Sallie Mae loans — like those taken by the Van De Marks — do not have this provision.

Loan forgiveness in the case of death seems to be a newer trend. The U.S. Department of Education says if a borrower dies, federal student loans will be discharged. Same goes for parent PLUS loans.

When it comes to private student loans, it depends on the lender.

Given Sallie Mae’s history of forgiving loans in cases like this, we asked the lender to take a closer look at the family’s situation.

While the lender wouldn’t discuss this family specifically because of privacy reasons, a spokeswoman said the accounts would be reviewed. Sallie Mae could only comment generally.

“Our heart goes out to any family who suffers the loss of a child, and we are committed to assisting our families as they handle financial matters in the wake of tragedy,” spokeswoman Patricia Christel said.

She said Sallie Mae was the first national private student lender to provide the forgiveness of student loans in the case of death of the primary borrower.

“For older private loan programs where this feature was not written into the loan contract, we work with the co-signer to assess ability to repay or modify the loan terms, as appropriate,” she said.

Before long, the Van De Marks got word and reported back to Bamboozled.

“I just wanted to let you know that Sallie Mae called and said that all of Caroline’s loans would be canceled,” Charlie Van De Mark said in an e-mail. “They said the loans were being processed but that no payment was due and the loans are no longer due. I feel very much relieved that this situation has been resolved.”

Thanks to Sallie Mae for showing compassion to this family, and for providing them with the same consideration given to its newer borrowers.

For the rest of you, if you co-sign any kind of loan, you should expect to be held responsible.

The only way to protect yourself is to consider a term life insurance policy on the life of the primary borrower — the student.

Young adults who are healthy would have very inexpensive premiums — a small price to pay for some peace of mind.