A Minor Inconvenience

Yesterday I had an unusual experience. I picked up a paycheck for some convention work I had done last week, meeting people at the airport and directing them to a shuttle to their hotel. The check was for $150 and was drawn on Bank of America. As I don’t have a bank account at present (like some 10 million American families) I took the check to a Bof A branch to cash.

The transaction wnet pretty well as expected–sign the back, show my driver’s license, produce a second piece of ID, watch the teller write all my personal information on the back of the check, fingerprint the check…. In other words, I was treated as the criminal we’ve all learned to expect to be treated as. But then, something happened that I was totally unprepared for. The teller informed me that, as my employer did not have an “agreement” with BofA, I would be charged $5.00 for the privilege of having them honor a check drawn on one of their own accounts! “Excuse me?” I said, baffled. “Would you like to take the check somewhere else?” she asked. As if there was anywhere else–no other bank would chash a check drawn on a BofA account unless I had an account with them, plus the check was already endorsed and marked up with all my personal information. “I don’t have much of a choice”, I told her, “although $5.00, that’s almost 4%, I could go to a check-cashing place for less.” “That’s our policy, I’m sorry”, she told me, continuing “If your employer had an agreement with us…”.

“They shouldn’t need ‘an agreement’,” I replied, a little angry at this point. Calming down, I continued, “Look, I understand that it’s not your choice, but your policy sucks. And I’d appreciate it if you’d tell your boss someone said that, when you get a chance.”

Essentially, BofA–one of the biggest banks in the US, stole $5.00 from me. Had I deposited the check in my bank account, or signed the check over to a friend or relative and had them cash it at their bank, or (this occured to me later) taken the check to a casino and cashed it, they wouldn’t have charged my bank, or my friend’s bank, or the casino $5.00 for the basic act of meeting their obligation to fulfill the check. The fee was one thing and one thing only, a penalty for being a) too poor to have a bank account, and b) only one person against the arbitrary and immense power of the BofA establishment.

Security expert Bruce Schneier has written about this trend in American business practice in a recent article entitled How to Fight. Schneier describes the increasingly invasive and often useless, even counter-productive, practices that corporations are adopting in the name of “security”: requiring a photocopy of your driver’s license to check into a hotel (a security risk for the hotel’s guest), creating patient profiles with all sorts of non-medical information before a pharmacy will fill a prescription, and so on. “In the end,” he writes,

all security is a negotiation among affected players: governments, industries, companies, organizations, individuals, etc. The players get to decide what security they want, and what they’re willing to trade off in order to get it. But it sometimes seems that we as individuals are not part of that negotiation. Security is more something that is done to us….

[But t]here’s no parity, because those who implement the security have no interest in changing it and no power to do so. They’re not the ones who control the security system; it’s best to think of them as nearly mindless robots. (The security system relies on them behaving this way, replacing the flexibility and adaptability of human judgment with a three-ring binder of “best practices” and procedures.)

I’m certain BofA stole that money from me under the guise of “security”, thinking that it somehow protects them against counterfeit payroll checks or whatever. Essentially they did it because they can, because they are bigger than me and there is little I can do about it.

Of course, I’ll write a letter to someone at BofA complaining, and I won’t be banking with BofA when I finally do open a bank account. (“If you would like to open an account with us,” she said, “there would be no fee.” To which I replied, simply, “That’s not going to happen.”) And I’ll talk to my employer–maybe they’ll decide to move their payroll (it’s a pretty big company, business I assume BofA would prefer not to lose), but I doubt it. Too much hassle, and how many of their employees don’t have bank accounts? Bottom line is, as much as I protest, I’ll lose this fight.

But maybe, just maybe, I’ll kick up some noise, joining the chorus of other folks making noise, adding a tiny little bit to the dissonant orchestra of dissent out there. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll gum up the works a little.

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