Reflections

The Theft of Reason

The man at the other end of the line was dispassionate and business-like. Of course he was. He wasn’t getting the business the way I was.

“Once we’ve determined if a crime was committed, we’ll reimburse you for your loss.”

Once you’ve determined if a crime has been committed?” I said raising my voice as I lost my temper. “Isn’t it obvious?”

How does a nightmare begin? For me, it began at 5:30 P.M. on Thursday, July 20, when I got home from work and checked my emails. Some years ago, I had signed up for two services that Citibank advised me would help me stay on top of my checking. One was a “Citi Alert” service, which would tell me when one of  my checks was “presented for service,” as the bank phrased it. The other was “Citibank Overdraft Protection,” which would cover me if I ever was overdrawn. (I had had one embarrassing incident when I bounced a few checks, and this seemed like a reasonable protection. Of course, Citibank made money on this service, charging me fees and interest on the checks they covered.)

Both these services came to play on July 20. I routinely checked my emails and saw a “Citi Alert.” Clicking on it, I was stunned to see that a check had been presented at 10:23 that morning for $7,500. I looked again, to see if I was misreading it.

No, it was $7,500. About $3,000 more than I had in my account.

In a panic, I called Citibank. The automatic teller chirped out  that I had nothing in my account, and I quickly got a live person on the phone. I explained the situation to her, and she looked up my checks and discovered that the $7,500 check was dated July 18 and made out to Samantha Duran.

“Do you know Samantha Duran?” she asked.

“No.”

“Well, it’s clear from looking at the other checks that someone else wrote this check. Your handwriting is barely legible.”

This is how you deal with a distraught customer? I thought.

“I’ll have to switch you to the fraud division,” she said breezily. “Thank you for banking at Citibank.”

This was unreal.

After about five minutes, a man came on the line and I had to repeat all the information I had just given to the woman from Citibank. I asked him what they were going to do about giving me back my money.

That’s when he told me that the bank had to conduct an investigation into whether a crime had been committed. “Of course a crime has been committed!” I said angrily. “My money is gone!”
“We have to conduct an investigation,” he said dispassionately.

“What you should investigate is why you had a teller who apparently didn’t think twice about turning over $7,500 in cash to someone presenting a bogus check for an amount that threw me thousands of dollars in arrears.”

Of course, as a colleague of mine pointed out later, if I hadn’t followed the bank’s advice and gotten the overdraft protection, the check would have been rejected for “insufficient funds.” But then the bank wouldn’t have made money on fees and interest.

“We’ll have to close this account,” the fraud man said.
“Are you going to give me my money back?”

“Not until the investigation is over.”

“How long will that take?”’

“It could take as long as 90 days,” he said.

“Ninety days! And what am I supposed to do for money?”

He was silent.

“Don’t you think you should do something for me?” I asked. “I’ve banked at Citibank, since 1975” – which apparently failed to impress him – “and what kind of tellers do you have? They don’t think it’s strange to turn over $7,500 in cash to someone with no questions asked?”

He responded with platitudes, and I soon realized I was cursing the darkness. I recalled to myself an old Citibank ad campaign, “The Citi Never Sleeps,” and remembered my last run-in with Citibank bureaucrats. They had sent me a letter requesting a lot of information about my company, Soter Ink Ltd., which had banked through Citibank since 1989. My accountant told me that the info they wanted was none of their business. However, when I didn’t respond, they sent me another letter threatening to freeze me out of my account if I didn’t comply. I went to two different branches before it was sorted out. They were unapologetic, as befits a giant bank, and essentially told me that’s the way it is.

I had been tempted to take my money to another bank, but I foolishly left it there, thinking that my many years at the bank should inspire some sort of mutual loyalty. But it was loyalty schmoyalty, or as a friend of mine put it, the bank’s attitude was more like, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” I spent another 15 minutes on the phone with fraud man, who suggested I contact anyone to whom I had recently sent a check and apprise them of the situation. “Of course, we’ll cover any fees if this does turn out to be a fraud” – I bit my tongue and remained silent – “but it’s a good idea to alert them.” He then asked me  a series of questions (“Do you know Samantha Duran?” “Did you write  her a check for $7,500?” and so on) and then said they would eventually let me know what they uncovered. “Thank you for banking at Citibank,” he said, reminding me of the personality-free robots in Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids. July 23, 2017

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