The Third Third

Debit Card Debacle

In case you haven’t noticed, the banking industry is under attack.  I’m not surprised.  I’m just wondering what took the rest of the country so long to get pissed.  I’ve had issues with banks’ disregard for customer service -- without even going to their institutional incompetence, malfeasance and insensitivity -- since my days as a teen-aged teller.   Bank of America’s announcement that using a debit card to pay for stuff (which is, I thought, what it was *supposed* to be used for) is about to cost $60 a year has brought it all back.  I remember  how offensive it was to me, back in 1965, that the bank president, a friend of my parents, never deigned to talk with his employees -- not so much as a “Good Morning” to his tellers -- much less took notice of the banking needs of the migrant workers or factory workers who cashed their checks every Friday night.  He owned the bank  -- inherited it from his father, actually -- and the money was his to loan to his friends.  (Little people need not apply.) He could act to build the community, or not.  It was clear to me he liked the exclusivity of his little club, and the money he accumulated. The other thing I learned in that small-town bank that figures into my analysis of the greed and arrogance implied by B of A’s new fee, is how much work was involved in processing cash and checks before computers. Every single piece of paper had to be fed into a machine -- by hand -- to reconcile the day’s credits and debits; and the next day, it all had to be filed, again by hand, into the proper account.  Computers have made all such bookkeeping obsolete, and certainly made the transfer of monies more immediate, saving the banks a whole lot of money.  One would think. Apparently, that’s far too rational an assumption.  And I should know better, because my next chapter in banking pranks involved my trying to manage my money prudently while Citibank tried to manage it to make more money for the bank.  For a while it was a pitched battle of wills.  It got to a point, when I lived in Brooklyn, that if I was stressed or feeling like I might pick a fight with someone I cared about (say, my husband), I could call “Customer Service” (an entirely fictional department) at Citibank instead and fight with those folks.  In the seventies, they (and I must say, the Customer Service people at Con Ed, too) were sort of the equivalent of the people trained to answer your questions at airline and credit card help desks today, the ones you think were “taught” English in pat phrases which they have been trained to say regardless of what your question might be.  They drive me crazy.  And the Citibank folks did, too.  They seemed to be speaking English and they thought they were being very rational, but they weren’t listening and they didn’t care that they’d bounced a check they shouldn’t have and that, as a result, your grocery store won’t take your checks anymore and they had no way to write a letter to the grocery store to tell them So Sorry, Bank Error,  your credit was really quite OK, or otherwise communicate with the store, even though they had some kind of fancy-pants system that allowed the checker to run your check through a little machine that said it was OK or not, right or wrong, right there in front of God and everyone. They would be happy, however, to set up your account with overdraft protection which, when used at their discretion, would cost a mere 20% or so in interest charges, even though you were moving your money from one account into another account full of your money, i.e., you weren’t really borrowing from anyone.  Customer Service?  No way.  Sales?  Ah, yes. Fast forward -- many accounts, several loans and lines of credit, myriad credit cards, and a few mortgages later -- and we early adopters who in the third third of our lives might be afraid of being left behind readily adapt to ATMs, online banking, and debit cards.  Once we get comfortable with all this electronic banking,we love the convenience, the clear and comprehensive records, the relative safety of not carrying cash around even as we know this same technology is again, saving the banks labor and arbitrage costs.  It seems a win-win as the 21st century gets underway.  Until -- the bankers get greedy again and, back in their equivalent of my small town banker’s corner office, decide to oversell and then bundle mortgages, gouge credit card users on both sides of the transaction, take imponderable risks with “our” money (”their” money?) and bring the system to its knees. Congress acts, the bankers regroup, toddle back onto their feet, and -- Ta-Da -- decide in their infinite wisdom -- I mean, greed --  to charge a new fee for Debit card use, now that we’re all dependent on that medium of exchange, and I mean all of us, our parents and our kids, and at a time when there just isn’t an “extra” $60 a year in anybody’s budget. What are they thinking?  They’re not.  Not thinking, that is.  Not thinking anymore than the people on the phone banks in 1974.  Just doing their job, m’am.  And that job is making money, more money, lots of money. . . for the bank.  A pillar of the community?  A catalyst for growth and recovery?  Customer Service?  Sorry, guys.  They’re no longer part of the business plan.  If ever they were. So, what am I going to do?  Even though, with the notable exception of banks, almost every business I patronize calls me up after the transaction to ask how they’re doing (I tell them that, except for this phone call, which annoys me, you’re doing fine) , the only effective say I feel I really have as a consumer these days is to vote with my feet.  Bank Lawyer [Lloyd Constantine][1] agrees.  I know Bank of America knows what a hassle it will be to move my accounts and they’re banking (sorry) on that hassle to keep my coins in their realm.  In fact, because my husband retired and is by some accounts hoarding cash while the stock market is so volatile, we probably won’t even be hit with the debit card fee because of our balances.  But I don’t want to support this egregious overreaching with even a sous.  So I am researching my options and will move our money by year-end so that neither Bank of America nor any other institution will profit excessively at my expense or yours. *What are you doing? Please add your suggestions below.* P.S.  I don’t pick fights anymore; my anger doesn’t change much.  I've learned I need to take action. [1]:
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