Sunday, August 30, 2020

Flashback 1996: Sometimes the one you can't trust is yourself

     Trying to keep the house we're confined to orderly, I pulled open a night table drawer and started to unjam. There, an expense check from December 19. $100.43. Quite a lot. The checks says "VOID AFTER 90 DAYS." Ever the optimist, I deposit it anyway, thinking maybe that's more of a suggestion. 
    It's not. The check bounces back, and the bank charges me $12 for my trouble. I appeal to our human resources department, which, used to my bumbling, says they will look into a new check, and delicately suggests I consider direct deposit for my expenses.
     Yes, I say, "that would be smart." I already have direct deposit for my pay, arranged after the episode outlined below. 

     "Bzzzz!" The buzzer. "UPS!" the intercom cries. A glance out the front window confirms the presence in the street of a big, boxy, brown truck. I let the guy into the building.
     That glance is a practiced part of city living. Can't be too careful. This supposed UPS guy could be a maniac, fresh from Stateville, with a double-edged ax under his coat. The truck is a good indication that everything is on the up-and-up.
     In day-to-day living, you have to assume the worst. Scan the bill for ripoffs and bad math. Check for complaints to the state when hiring the new plumber. Nothing dire about this; just being smart.
     Spending my days as I do scanning the horizon for trouble, I was doubly shocked last week not only to lose a big chunk of money, but to do so in a manner so stupid and careless that I never before imagined possible.
     I'm sharing the tale here, despite deep humiliation, for the purpose of perhaps helping one poor hapless individual avoid a similar circumstance.
     Also, my wife insists it is funny. She's been laughing all week. Perhaps you, too, will find it funny. I certainly don't. Maybe in several years. But not now. Not anytime soon. Maybe never.
     Here goes. Every week I take my paycheck and deposit it in the bank, personally. I understand doing this has become an antiquated process, on par with dipping candles or spinning wool. I understand banks discourage their customers from actually showing up and demanding services. A reader complained that his bank charges him 5 percent to run coins through the change machine. Make a deposit at the wrong ATM and you end up owing the bank money.
     What's next? A whack with a big mallet when you open an account? They used to give away toasters. . . .
     The bank wants us to use direct deposit or their ATM machines. But I like going to the bank. Or used to. It was a manageable errand, like dropping off a pair of shoes for repair at the shoemaker. No stress. Something I could do often and do well. The bank tellers are nice young people who respond politely and quickly.
     Returning to the tale: Every week I deposit my check, carefully filling out a bank deposit slip. About a month ago, I noticed the balance on the receipt was huge—many times what it should have been.
     I mentioned this to my wife, who handles the bookkeeping. She didn't blink. "You must be reading the wrong number," she said. "A code or something." The matter dropped.
     The next week it happened again. And the third. I gathered my courage and tried again. "Honey, I really think this is the amount in our checking account. It's got a dollar sign in front of it."
     The dollar sign usually means something.
     She got off the couch, sighed, and took the receipt from me. There was a long silence. I could hear the clock ticking in the next room. Her face went slack, and when she spoke, her voice sounded tinny and far away, as if filtering up through the heating ducts.
     "You've been writing the wrong account number—see, two numbers are switched," she said. "You've been depositing your paycheck into somebody's else's bank account."
     A month earlier, with great effort, I had memorized our account number. I had been so proud.
     In the movie version, the camera, at this moment, would pull back quickly, perhaps spinning, while the soundtrack filled with boisterous cosmic laughter: "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-hah!"
     There's a feeling common in childhood, mine anyway, a kind of sinking in the gut, a horrid, "I'm-in-trouble-now" feeling that doesn't happen much in adulthood, thank God.
     I felt it now, and no matter how much my brain reassured me that of course the bank would rectify the error, my gut tormented me with images of grinning bank clerks shrugging their shoulders. "Tough luck, pal. Be more careful next time and don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out. . . ."
     My wife added this helpful thought: "Well, maybe the people whose account you put our money into will be honest and agree to give it back." Thanks, dear.
     The most galling thing to me was this: It was a problem I had never imagined possible. I just assumed the tellers checked the number against the name on the slip. I had counted on the kindness of strangers, bilking myself the way so many people get bilked, through trust.
     The next morning I slunk to the bank, hat in hand, and presented my case. I could have taken the offensive and yelled that it was their fault—why have a spot on the bank slip for a customer's name and address if nobody looks at it?
     Instead, I meekly pushed the crumpled deposit slips I had found in coat pockets and atop dressers at the teller and begged for my money back.
The teller was very nice—of course they'd look into it, he said, right away. He would pull the records and set everything right. Very friendly and sympathetic. I'm going to miss those bank people, I thought, as I immediately arranged for direct deposit. Better safe than sorry.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 15, 1996


  1. One of the many, many reasons I'm glad not to be freelancing any more is that periodic runs to the bank to deposit clients' checks were a nuisance. (Although made easier by modern ATMs that can read the amount of a check and deposit it automatically.)

  2. Wow, that's quite the tale. I'm surprised that the bank would *allow* you to deposit money in a different account. "I just assumed the tellers checked the number against the name on the slip." That would have seemed like a safe assumption to me. The tellers may have been "Very friendly and sympathetic," but the ones taking in all those erroneous deposits don't seem to have been too observant or competent. Not that I'm letting *you* off the hook, needless to say! :)

    Personally, I find this story more surprising and fascinating than amusing. I could see myself doing something like it, these days.

    But we gots to know -- "Also, my wife insists it is funny. ... I certainly don't. Maybe in several years. But not now. Not anytime soon. Maybe never." Almost a quarter-century later, what's the verdict? Is it funny to you in 2020?

  3. Well, considering I just lost a hundred bucks, probably, in a similarly bonehead move, not as funny as it might have been. I noticed a certain sentence that struck me as Robert Benchley-like—"The dollar sign usually means something." That has his tone. I was younger than, and still hoped I'd end up wearing a fez and being a humorist. A column like this, at this point in time, is almost like an art deco ashtray. You can admire it, but it seems so out-of-place.

  4. Mid 80s I remember waiting in line to cash checks. I’d heard about ATMs but they still seemed impossibly futuristic. And who the hell was ready to trust a machine to count your money correctly? I still find myself every time I withdraw cash thinking about who I’ll have to talk to if the amount is incorrect. Yes, I count it every time.

  5. Never accidently deposited money into the wrong account, probably because I always order pre-printed deposit slips when they run low. My bank errors went the other way, as the recipient. A $7,500 deposit in a brokerage account, a $1,000 deposit entered as $10,000 by the teller, and a wire transfer into my checking account of $43,000! In each case when I discovered the error, I called the bank and made sure they understood what happened. U.S. banks have a clear idea of what fiduciary responsibility is, which means when notified funds go to the person who owns them, period. The popular board game Monopoly has a Community Chest card "Bank Errors in Your Favor, Collect $200." This gives some people the idea that if extra funds appear in a bank account they can spend it. This can get someone in real trouble if they can't immediately return the funds.
    Selecting a bank within walking distance means you have an excuse for taking a break from work and getting some exercise. Never used an ATM for deposits until now. It looks like even when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, more people will use an ATM for its convenience.

    1. Ditto as to deposits in an ATM, Bernie. First-timers this week. We were baffled that there were no deposit envelopes anywhere. And then amazed as we deposited multiple checks and they just got read and tabulated in seconds as we stood there. I was going to enter them one-at-a-time until I figured out we didn't need to. Uh, the fact that this makes me seem as clueless as Bush the Elder marveling at the grocery scanner is not lost on me, that I can tell you. ;)

    2. Double ditto. Prior to making the first ATM deposit in my life, I viewed several youtube and bank howto videos to see how it works.


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