Sunday, August 15, 1999

Banks hold the gun in this stickup




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        We used to like our banks. They used to like us. They kept our money in a safe place and gave it back to us when we needed it. Sometimes they gave us toasters and umbrellas, just for the sheer joy of having us as customers. We publicly displayed calendars with our bank's name plastered all over it.

        Now we hate each other.

        The banks pretend otherwise. They have slogans promising they are “the only bank we'll ever need” and “the bank without boundaries.” We know their real slogans are “we have all your money and we aren't going to give it to you until we are good and ready” and “we have thought of yet another way to charge you for nonexistent service.”

An ugly story
        Bank horror stories have nearly replaced HMO horror stories, some more dramatic than others. I'm thinking of last week's news about Clyde Benjamin Reed.

        Fifth Third Bank mistakenly placed $183,516.11 in Mr. Reed's account in three separate wire transfers, beginning last October. Mr. Reed's sister, Darlene Williams, told The Enquirer's Ben Kaufman that she and her brother went to a Fifth Third branch and were assured that the money belonged to him. The bank “can't confirm” Miss Williams' account of the conversation.

        Anyway, the bank finally discovered its mistake — possibly encouraged by the person whose money this actually was. It took Fifth Third until July. Meanwhile, Mr. Reed had begun to spend the money.

        So, the bank sicced the FBI on him, and he wound up in jail for three weeks. He was released by a grand jury, who sensibly refused to indict him for theft and bank fraud. Four days later Mr. Reed died of a stroke.

        The bank threatened to sue Mr. Reed's relatives and the funeral home that buried him. With Mr. Reed's assistance, most of the money had already been recovered. After the story became news, the bank decided to write off the balance “due to Mr. Reed's untimely death.”

        And, one might suppose, due to the ugly nature of their dealings with him being made public.

Fee-driven
        This is only a story of a big bank being a big bully. Most of the horror stories are about fees. “Every time they change their logo, they come up with new charges,” a friend says. This is not her imagination. In 1990, there were 90 different things you could be charged for at your bank. Today, there are 250 different fees.

        The average surcharge levied here is about $1.57 now, compared with 71 cents three years ago, according to Jeff McKinney, who reports on such matters for The Enquirer. He says banks used to make money by charging us more to borrow than they gave us to use our money.

        Apparently the banks are no smarter than the rest of us schlubs. They don't know what is going to happen to the interest rate, either. So they are charging us out the wazoo for every conceivable service.

        (Jeff did not say “schlubs” or “wazoo.” He is too polite.)

        Which brings me to another reason we hate our banks. They are not nice to us. They do not know us. In fact, they do not know each other. You can talk to three different employees of the same bank and get three different answers to your question.

        The final reason we do not like our banks is because we do not trust them. Too many mistakes are being made. Too often.

        When Ben Kaufman wrote the story about Mr. Reed, his telephone began to ring. Callers wanted to report the various ways in which they had been roughed up by their banks. Mysterious charges. Bounced checks on accounts full of money. Simple rudeness. Complicated errors.

        Maybe we consumers need a new slogan: “Give us our money back. Immediately. We are going to keep it in our underwear drawer until you learn to behave yourself.”

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at laurapulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

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