When I first came to Montana, aged 21, all frisky and up for anything, there were pads of counter checks at all the stores — you wrote in the name of the bank and kept your balance register in your head. Your change came in silver dollars so your pockets were always a little baggy and clinked. If you had an overdraft, the bank called you up, you jumped in the pickup to go put some of your silver dollar stash in the bank, and that was the end of it.
Now I’m 70, retired, on Social Security with income of about $1,000 a month.
I have banked in Portland at PointWest Credit Union for decades, so when I retired, I kept my account there.
I had a number of safeguards:
At first there was automatic overdraft protection for a Silverline senior account. That was ended. But I didn’t know it.
Then I was protected by a line of credit. When I closed out all my credit cards a couple of years ago and consolidated everything into one loan, they closed my line of credit because it was the same as my VISA account. I didn’t know that. (The lady who helped me was shocked that my total exceeded their guidelines but that was mostly because they kept raising the limit on my VISA without my asking. Mostly I bought books. This computer. Motor rebuild on the pickiup.)
Earlier this year the Point West Credit Union online banking website, which I access through the Safari browser, began to say it could not certify authenticity, that the url could be a Trojan Horse dummy. I called the techies at the Credit Union who said to just ignore that, but I was very reluctant to use the the website anymore. I tried to call the supervisor of the tech support, but he only referred it back to the techs. I wrote a letter to the Board of Directors and got no answer. Previously, I had checked every few days to make sure I was balanced, printing out the record and striking off my register entries with a highlighter as they were processed. But I write very few checks, mostly utilities and groceries.
My checkbook fell out of my pocket into a driveway puddle (at least it was at my home and not a store parking lot) and was soaked through. I had to guess to reconstruct until my statement came.
Last January, without my awareness, the Credit Union stopped notifying people when they had overdrafts. They told me “no one paid attention anyway.” So I went on blindly writing overdrafts until finally I went to the website and discovered them. The total overdraft fees imposed by the bank were several hundred dollars though the original triggering overdraft was only a few dollars, because every fee triggered a new overdraft.
When I contacted the bank, they canceled four of these $30 overdraft penalties. The service person to whom I spoke said she had a checklist in front of her about criteria for withdrawing the penalties.
One thing on the list was that if I had ASKED for her to drop the penalty, she was not supposed to do it. Luckily, I didn’t ask. I was very contrite and explanatory. I’m sure another thing on her list was to deny me if I got angry.
The local overdraft fee imposed by the store in addition to the bank penalty is $15. I’m told this is customary and to be expected. I didn’t know that since I’ve never had a local overdraft before — very few of them at all. I paid this fee. What is harder to overcome is the damage to my reputation with these local people. Courtesies and services in small towns depend upon the good opinion of fellow citizens.
Now comes the big box grocery store eighty miles away with a $30 fee, though the original check was paid when it was sent in a second time. They tell me this penalty is “allowed by state law” and that it was posted in the store. I visit that store once a month. I have never looked at what is posted in that store. I called their service rep, who sighed and laughed and said she couldn’t do anything because the $30 had not been taken out of my account yet. AFTER it is, then we can talk. I know people who spend all day every day calling people to correct records, get things registered, get things fixed, apply for exceptions.
In the beginning I was very angry, partly because of fear. My money is just barely enough and even a small unexpected debit makes things difficult. Then I thought I should get smart, so I went online to the Oregon state banking law because of the bank being there. I am unclear whether Oregon or Montana law applies, since my bank is in one place and I’m in the other. But there was some consumer advice that was useful about what sort of approach to take, how to document, and so on.
Only cash is cash. Everything else is bookkeeping. therefore reversible and arbitrary — no markers. But also, the bookkeeping is controlled by calendar triggers: social security is automatically deposited according to a schedule, automatic deductions happen on a schedule. Netflix threw me into an overdraft years ago because they take their $20 out on the same day of the month you signed up. By chance that meant they were deducting at the end point in the month when my balance was the lowest — sometimes lower than $20. The only way to rectify this was to resign from the club, wait until the date would fall just AFTER my automatic deposit of social security, then sign up again.
There’s another side to this story. Point West CU merged with a Hispanic credit union a few years back. Now many of the tellers and so on are Spanish-speaking ESL. In addition to my social security check, I receive a paper check in the mail from the Canadian government for the two years I served a church up there and paid into their system. One evening I received a phone call from one of the data entry persons who was about to input my $40 Canada Revenue check.
She was very concerned, because the automatic fee the Credit Union charges for foreign checks is $30, which would pretty much swallow my check. She was alert to this because so many checks go back and forth to the south, she assumed I didn’t have money to spare, and she wanted to know if there were some way I could cash this check where they would not charge me so big a fee. In that case she would mail it back to me.
I pointed out that the check was drawn on a US bank. Canada transfers a massive amount of funds to a US bank which then writes the individual checks. She was very relieved to see this. Now I circle “US Funds” on the check with a bright red marker before I deposit it. I do not know what fees the Canadian and US banks charge to handle these transactions, or who was able to decide which banks got the contract.
I do know that the Mexican teller who cared enough to call me up and tell me about the problem was far more moral than the credit union itself. I can only hope she is a great success in life. I feel sure her family values her.