'The software thinks you're writing checks'


THE bank's customer service rep is friendly. Always a bad sign.

I hand her the paper.

"I'd like to cancel my authorization for this automatic debit on my checking account."

She looks at the paper. It's 10 years old, issued by a Baltimore bank recently taken over by the one I'm now sitting in.

She says nothing. I try to explain. "It was a charity. One of those adopt-a-child things. He was a kid when I started. Now he's grown up and has a job at the Volkswagen plant in Mexico City. But the charity keeps deducting the $22."

She turns to her computer and starts punching the keyboard. "I'll have to issue a 'stop payment' on this. There'll be a $25 fee."

Hmmm. "Look, I don't exactly want to 'stop payment.' I mean, it's not like I'm compulsively writing checks and asking you to stop them. I'm just canceling my authorization to let folks raid my checking account."

She looks up and smiles. "I'm sorry, but a 'stop payment' is the only way to do it. Now, what day of the month does the debit occur?"

"I don't know. Usually the 12th, I guess. Sometimes the 11th. It varies."

Her fingers freeze. "I need a specific date. Otherwise the computer will stop payment on any check you write for the same amount."

I think about that for a second. "You mean unless I give you a specific date, I can never write a check for $22 again? Ever?"

"That's right."

"Whereas if I do give you a specific date . . ."

"Then you just can't write a check for $22 on that day of the month."

Wait a minute. "But that means once every month -- let's say it's the 12th -- I have to say to myself, "Whatever you do, don't write a check for $22 today?"

"Well, it's very unlikely . . ."

"And I have to keep doing this every month for the rest of my life?"

She starts to answer, then turns to a colleague at a desk five feet away. She calls his name, but her voice is so soft he doesn't hear. "Brad," she says. He doesn't answer. She calls him again. "Brad." Nothing. "Brad. Brad. Brad. Brad. Brad."

I want to shout "Brad!" at the top of my lungs, but I bite my tongue. Finally she picks up the phone and punches in a number. Five feet away the phone rings. Brad picks it up, says, "Brad."

When he hears her voice, he frowns. Then he hangs up and turns to us.

"Yes?" She explains the problem. I add my two cents. I try to sound reasonable. I smile and say it can't possibly be true, can it? Brad shakes his head.

"Actually, it's a little more complicated than that. Because even if you do stop payment on the $22, they can come back and start charging you a different amount. Charities won't usually do that, NTC though. Health clubs, now that's a different story. Some of them, anyway. You know, they find out you stopped payment on $22, so they start charging you $22.01."

"And the bank will pay it?"

"Sure, because you only told us not to pay $22. You didn't say anything about not paying $22.01."

He smiles.

My jaw is seizing up but I manage to smile back. "OK. So theoretically I'd have to tell you not to pay any amount, ever. From one cent up to infinity."


"Can I do that?"

"Sure, if you want to. But that would stop all your checks. And each one would cost you $25."

I decide to give it one more try. "Look. Ten years ago I put my signature on a little card authorizing the bank to make this payment. You must have it here somewhere. All I want to do is get that card back and rip it up. Surely I can do that? Or the electronic equivalent?"

They're still smiling, but they're giving me the look I give my kids when they ask an incredibly stupid question. "Unfortunately, the software doesn't work that way," the woman says.

"Right," Brad chimes in. "Because the software thinks you're writing checks."

"If the software supposes that . . ." I say, but I leave the thought unfinished.

Finally I give up. I ask them to put a "stop payment" for $22 on the 12th. I thank them and leave.

After all, it's not that big a deal. Tonight when I get home I'll just jot myself a note on the calendar for the 12th of next month.

And the month after that. And the month after that. And the month . . .

Bob Oeste writes and banks in Baltimore. He swears this story is true.

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