I’ve Been Robbed and Screwed, More or Less in That Order

31 Oct 2007

So, last night I apparently left my ATM card in a drive-through ATM. These things happen to people when they get older, I guess.

About one minute after my $122.00 was charged, another $22.00 was charged to my account. $2 is the out-of-network transaction fee, one reason I rarely use ATMs these days.

My bank won’t cover it, or at least the employee I spoke to says they aren’t obligated to cover it because there’s a sort of “deductible” of $50 for lost or stolen cards. But I’m supposed to fill out a form. I had the card (which is a “VISA check card” and ATM card combined) declared lost, so I should get a new one and shouldn’t be liable for any more charges.

The extra $22 is going to cost me some pain. My balance was low yesterday – I had an electronic transfer from another account in progress, but it will not complete until tonight. I had been careful to check that I had $120 available – which I did – but not much more than that, without the completed deposit.

So my balance was driven below zero, which means an overdraft fee. Banks love their fees. In the olden days banks made money on interest from using your money; not anymore. They are happy to let you take out more money than you have. Or let someone else take out more money than you have. They organize their policies to maximize fees.

Back in the golden age, in early 2007, I had an account with Republic Bank. I liked Republic Bank. If I tried to take out money from an ATM and I didn’t have enough, it would say “sorry, you don’t have enough money.” Allowing me to take out more than I have so I can get hit with overdraft fees is not customer service.

Republic processed deposits immediately, and always credited pending deposits before withdrawals after a given day’s transactions. I had an overdraft protection arrangement with them, which covered accidents, and the fees for using it were quite modest.

But then we came to our present modern era, in the summer of twenty hundred and seven, when Republic became Citizens Bank.

Citizens holds electronic deposits for at least 48 hours. Every night, it chronologically rearranges pending withdrawals and and pending deposits so that the withdrawals go through first. Any pending withdrawal that exists within that window of negative balance generates a $35 overdraft fee. Their computer system literally rearranges the transactions, our of chronological order, to maximize the lines in the ledger that read negative. If you take snapshots of the online statement and compare them, you can watch this happen. It’s kind of interesting… like watching a series of still shots from a security camera of someone calmly strolling into your house and taking your money.

Since these withdrawals also can float for a few days, that means the soy milk we bought at Trader Joe’s the previous Thursday can suddenly cost us an extra $35 on Tuesday. Suddenly we might have $140 or $210 or $280 in fees, thus producing something that was extremely rare with my Republic account – a “cascade failure,” where because the bank takes their own sweet time to process deposits, it becomes almost impossible to put money in fast enough to avoid having it eaten by the cascading series of overdraft fees. A “cascade failure” can easily run upwards of a thousand dollars.

Did I also mention that they pre-date checks, too? I can look at my statement on a Tuesday, and it doesn’t show a check clearing that day. Then sometime on Wednesday, a check will show up dated the previous day. Since they’ve pre-dated it, this comines with their chronological-rearranging trick to ensure that the amount of the check gets compared to the running balance that existed at the close of business Monday.

I have to hand it to them – there must be some clever analysts and programmers who put a lot of effort into making their system maximize the bank’s opportunities to collect fees while staying just within the bounds of the commercial code.

Now, I’m not the most responsible person when it comes to managing my bank account – but with Republic’s policies, if I had a small overdraft, as happened occasionally in recent years, it didn’t tend to create a “cascade failure.” I paid my penalty and the overdraft protection covered it, and it was cleared with my next deposit. Republic helped me to keep my account operating. Citizens apparently has no equivalent overdraft protection product so they quietly turned that off, and quietly changed the way they actually process transactions.

I really, really don’t like Citizens Bank, but it is not so easy to change banks on a dime, especially an account you’ve had for fifteen years, and which gets used for everything. Also, I know and like the people at my bank. But I guess that is irrelevant since they don’t make policy. I suppose it is only a matter of time before the experienced employees are driven out in favor of people they don’t have to pay so much.

Anyway… Where was I? The credit card number will be changed, which means I will have to track down all the organizations (phone bill, electric bill, Amazon, DreamHost, etc.) who have that credit card number on file.

My co-worker gave me a ride downtown and I filed a police report for my stolen $20.

I’m a little unclear on my ethical choices here. I feel a little uncomfortable agreeing to press felony charges for someone who took advantage of my carelessness, especially since it was such as small amount. The offender could be dirt-poor and desperate. But maybe that’s just an excess of soft-hearted liberal guilt speaking. Or the offender could be a serial thief who is wanted already.

The bank employee I spoke to suggested that since the ATM will time out after a short wait and spit out the card, the thief would not have been able to take out the money without knowing my PIN – implying that it must have been me. Fuck you very much, Citizens. Yeah, I stole that $20 from myself. Take that, me! And I’d do it again!

But I think the thief did come through immediately after I did – the time stamps on the record support that. The machine was probably displaying a message that said “Do you want another transaction?” prior to timing out. It is a drive-through, after all. If nothing else, I am filing the police report to state for the record “someone stole money from me.” Someone besides Citizens bank itself, that is.

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