Q&A: Retiring consumer services director Deb Bortner offers common-sense tips

At a recent reception honoring her retirement as director of consumer services at the state Department of Financial Institutions, it took several minutes before Deb Bortner noticed the bracelets her colleagues wore.

The bracelets carried the message WWDD: “What Would Deb Do?”

The T-shirt she received as a gift proclaimed her “Bulldog Bortner.”

And to mark her service over four decades, the agency’s director, Scott Jarvis, later said, “She’s the best damned regulator on the planet.”

A graduate of the University of Puget Sound Law School, Bortner entered state service in 1981. As director of consumer services, she oversaw mortgage brokers, payday lenders and other nondepository financial matters.

She spoke to The News Tribune on one of her final days in office.

Question. What attracted you to public service at DFI?

Answer. I just always thought it would be really interesting. I always liked math, and regulating is all about solving problems.

Q. One of the problems you had concerned payday loans. You must have heard some sad stories.

A. I’ve talked to people who had 20 payday loans. It was terrible that we had a law that allowed people to get themselves into such a hole. Now the law allows eight loans per year, $700 at a time.

If you need money, who can afford to pay $700 out of their next paycheck? We’ve seen people get into a cycle of debt and lose their credit. These are real tear-jerk issues that we’ve seen and continue to see.

Q. And have you seen successes with that?

A. We’ve had some successes. We have learned to follow the money in the payday situation. We inform banks that they may be facilitating an illegal payday lending business.

Q. You’ve testified before Congress on financial issues. I won’t ask which Washington you prefer.

A. All my career I’ve really liked policy issues, and I’ve been active trying to get states to promote uniform regulations. These (lenders) are national businesses that do provide legitimate services.

This is not a “gotcha” game. We want to provide a regulated marketplace. I’ve spent a lot of time speaking with regulators in other states.

Q. I’ve heard about the bracelets, and then there’s the “bulldog” nickname. Where do you think those sentiments come from?

A. I am a bit stubborn.

Q. Are you leaving with any great disappointments?

A. When we settle cases, there’s only so much money (as when) people lose their home and then get a (settlement) check for $2,000. You can’t put consumers back to the place where they were before than got harmed.

Q. You’ve been known for your outreach on financial literacy. Any last tips for consumers?

A. Yes. Deal with someone locally, someone you can look in the eye. Try to get referrals. Do your homework. Never get just one opinion. And if something sounds too good to be true, you really do have a responsibility to look closely.

It’s worth taking two or three weeks to do your research.

Q. Any others?

A. If you don’t understand the proposition, either don’t get involved or else hire a professional.

For a lot of people who are retired or elderly, they get a lot of phone calls. Get an answering machine. Too many people are convinced of something over the phone. Make sure to get something in writing before you give your credit card or send a check.

Q. How important is financial literacy in Washington?

A. We started working with financial literacy years ago. It’s really important. More and more school districts are realizing it’s an important part of education, and smart parents teach their kids not to be victims.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I have no plans. I have always loved helping consumers, solving problems for consumers. When I became director, I did less of that. If I did have plans, I’d say I’ll volunteer offering low-income legal assistance. I will find some way to be involved helping consumers.

Q. Was it an easy decision to leave?

A. I thought July, then I thought August, then October. I thought January of last year, but there’s always been a project to finish.

I said a long time ago that if there’s a week that I don’t learn something, I’m leaving. Well, there’s hasn’t even been a day. It’s going to continue to be interesting, just the flow of money is going to be so different.

I didn’t realize how rewarding it would be to help consumers. That’s been the best part of the job. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to serve. I’ve gotten more out of it than I’ve been able to put into it.