Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Perils of Non-Human Banking

UPDATE, 7/29/2013: Situation temporarily resolved and described at

I have an account with Bank of America that I've had for years. Even before moving to Kansas City, I had an account of one type or another with BofA, which has caused all kinds of small difficulties. Due to some weird relic of banking integration, I always need to tell branches in this area that my account was created in Missouri, otherwise things go slightly haywire. I don't know what the difference is between Kansas and Missouri accounts, but there is some divide that means that they can't use PURPLE ink on PINK paper for this transaction -- it needs to be PINK ink on PURPLE paper. Obviously.

Still, it hasn't really ever effected me. My transactions still go through with regular speed and little happens to cause disquiet. But then I got to last week...
I teach trombone lessons to different families several times a week. One of the families pays with checks at the end of each lesson. They are timely and prompt. And as long as I've been teaching them (more than two months) I've used Bank of America's smartphone app to take pictures of my checks and deposit them securely. It's fantastically convenient, as I can do it all times of day or night, on holidays, and even from the car.

The app prompts me to take pictures of both sides of the check, then uploads it to BofA's servers. The servers process the check like a debit transaction using the routing and account numbers from the check and after a couple of days, the money arrives in my account. Ah, the magic of the internet!

But last week, there was a problem. After two days of processing the transaction, the money never appeared in my account. Worse, they was also a $12 fee missing for "returned items." My first thought was that perhaps the family had gone overdrawn. But I was able to take the check to their bank, where the teller verified that they had enough to cover the check. "Would you like me to cash you out?" Yes, please.

But there's still the matter of what happened on my end. I had successfully deposited over a dozen checks from this family without a problem. And the error message had no explanation -- only the simple "item returned" heading.

So I spoke to my local branch. They were unable to help me, but they confirmed that every returned item is grounds for a $12 fee. So even if the family had run out of money in their account, I'd be penalized $12 for attempting to cash the check.

Research suggests that this is to prevent me from cashing checks that I willingly know are "bad," but I still think it's more about being able to monetize someone else's misfortune. And my bank can't legally take funds from the non-BofA account, so they just take it from me. Why? Because *mumble mumble* cost of doing business *mumble mumble*.


To the credit of Bank of America, I contacted their online chat customer service and received remuneration. The woman on the other end confirmed that there was a fee, but couldn't provide any more information. When I explained that I was disappointed that there was a fee for something I couldn't possibly prevent (even had I deposited it at the branch, I would still have been charged the fee), the representative reversed the $12 fee. I was mollified, but expressed hesitation because I was going to get another check NEXT week.

Worryingly, when she processed the refund, she said (and I quote) "Based on you being a valued client and your fee refund history, we are able to grant your request for a refund of 1 fee(s) for $12.00" (emphasis mine). My history of fee refunds? Surely any time a refund is required for a fee, it's because I (the customer) have been proved right. Why would a history matter? It seems like its the same sort of policy that the NFL has for coach challenges: you get two, and if both of them go in your favor, you get a third. But that's it.

What happens if you're always right and continue to have bad calls against you? You can't challenge any more - out of luck! I never liked that rule: it always seemed that if you keep winning all your challenges, they should keep giving them to you. But I suppose it would slow the game down in cases of bad officiating, and there are sponsors to think of.

But why would the bank care? Because money.

I bring all this up because I deposited two checks earlier this week. One was a birthday check I received and the other was from this week's lesson. I sat and dutifully deposited them using the mobile app. And this time, I was meticulously careful. I made sure all the photos were clear and unambiguous. I made sure that the checks had not been folded so that they'd have the best shape possible, in case that was throwing the computers off.

And I got hit with the fee again. Item returned. But only for the lesson check, not the birthday money. Again, -$12 to my account for the inconvenience of my 1's and 0's not being exactly correct. I know it's a computer error: I don't think humans examine the deposit pictures. But just like last time, there's no explanation.

Which means I'll call customer service again tomorrow. I'll explain that I have no idea why this occurred, just like last time. And if I'm lucky, I'll get my $12 back. If I'm unlucky, then my "history" of fee refunds will mean I'm ineligible.

I'm frustrated that my local branch can't help me. I'm frustrated that there's no solid information on what's going wrong, or how to prevent it. I'm frustrated that I can be charged fees for doing nothing wrong or suspect. And I'm frustrated that I have no easy ways to remedy any of this.

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