Banks. Still Sucky.

A year or so ago, I had a naïve hope that moving some of my commonly used bank accounts to a different, generally well-regarded financial institution might spare me some of the run-arounds, grief, misrepresentations, and misappropriation of funds I was experiencing at the hands of my then-current bank. Of course, the process of transitioning to the new bank was impeded at almost every step of the way by the old bank, which dragged its feet, lost paperwork, and repeatedly dropped the ball…all the while assailing me with offers and promotions designed to make me reconsider my decision.

Eventually, I (mostly) shook myself free. I keep a simple account at the old institution purely for purposes of PayPal and the like. Although the account usually contains double-digit sums, the first digit is usually a "1"—if the account gets compromised either by malfeasance or by the institution itself (again), I have little to lose.

In general, I've had not-great but at-least-acceptable service from the new bank. Aside from a few minor human errors and a policy change that I don't particularly like, they've handled my accounts professionally, accurately, and courteously.

You see where this is going.

The new bank gets the notion that they might be able to trick me into going into debt if they start sending me counter checks—solicitations sent via U.S. mail to tap into my credit, along with (usually three) numbered checks with my name and account information on them I can use "just as you would any other check."

Identity thieves love these things because they can be used "just as they would any other check." And instead of being locked in a desk, a house, or kept in some other secure location like a real checkbook, these checks are just sitting in mailboxes in visually distinctive envelopes. All they have to do is follow about five minutes behind the mail carrier, and they can probably score a few hundred of these a day.

My mailbox is out on the sidewalk, on a street which serves as a pedestrian thoroughfare between a boys & girls club and city park and a "main drag" in north Seattle with bus stops, fast food, condos, apartments, retailers, cute little shops—even an Academy of Hair. On a typical winter day, probably a hundred or more people walk within a foot of my mailbox. In the summer, you can often triple that. The point is: I'm not thrilled about getting these sorts of so-called "checks" in the mail anyway, and when I find one of these missives with my name on it torn open, checks missing, and blowing around the parking lot of the grocery store down the block, I get a little more worried.

I retrieve the letter from the parking lot, and (a few days ater) follow instructions: "If you do not wish to receive future direct mail check offers, simply call 1-888-nnn-nnnn and request to be removed from the list."

So I called. The automated system took my account number and verified my customer identity, then said "We're sorry; we don't recognize that account number. Please hold while I transfer you to a specialist." OK fine. The specialist answered right away, pulled up all my details, but couldn't find the account. "Where did you open this account?" "Seattle, Washington." "Oh, that's why I can't see it. I'm in California, and don't have access to Washington accounts."

This bank is based in Washington.

The "specialist" offers to transfer to me to a Washington-specific specialist. This dumps me into an automated phone system which offers no options related to my type of account. I repeatedly enter the account number anyway, hoping it'll eventually kick me out to a representative, but no: I'm stuck in a "we don't know that account" loop. So I just wait, and after more than a minute of silence it asks me for my tax ID number. Without a word, I'm transfered to someone who claims to be in "technical support." I explain what I'm trying to do, he chuckles and says he'll immediately transfer me to a specialist.

This new specialist answers right away—and immediately stops me, saying she can't handle my type of account! I'm transferred to a different department…which turns out to be for credit cards. (This isn't a credit card.) After a 9:35 minute wait, I am transferred to another specialist who apparently handles home equity loans (this isn't a home equity loan!) but who assures me he can handle this matter for me. And I'm put on hold.

I've been on hold for over 18 minutes now. (That's how long it's taken me to write this far.) Total call time so far? Thirty eight minutes, fifty-three seconds. And the hold music? Suspicious rip-off of the Doogie Hauser theme.

So let's recap:
  • Called the number the mailing says to call, but that's the wrong number
  • Transferred to a number specifically for my region…which can't handle my type of account
  • Struggled with automated system, eventually dropped to "technical support"
  • Transferred to specialist who can't handle my type of account
  • Transferred to different department who can't handle my type of account
  • Wait for ten minutes while representative attempts to locate someone who can handle my account
  • Transferred to a specialist for a different type of account, who says he can handle mine
  • Placed on hold. Total time: Forty-two minutes, thirteen seconds.

And counting.

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