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No Accounting for the ATM Typo

March 21, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: I know that you've written a lot about the Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), which have become so popular with banks in recent years, and I wonder if you have run across any instances of one of them making a typographical error.

This sounds like an odd question, but it's the only explanation I can think of that makes any sense in what happened to me recently. Being between paydays and needing about $80 to run me over the weekend, I went to my nearest ATM. I knew I didn't have a really fat balance, but my records indicated that I had about $200 and that an $80 withdrawal shouldn't present any problem.

Imagine my horror, though, when I got my $80, all right, but the "Available Balance" showing on the card indicated that I'd left myself with only $5.95. My first reaction was that (once again) I'd made a withdrawal somewhere down the road and had forgotten to enter it in my book. But with my next payday still almost a week away, $5.95 wasn't going to cover even my checking charges. Also, there was a $30 check, written a few days earlier, that might not have cleared, and if I really had only $5.95 in that account, I'd be in trouble.

I didn't want to take any chances, so my wife obligingly wrote me a check for $75 the next day (a Friday), and I took it directly to my bank and deposited it in the Express box in the lobby. The $75, plus the $5.95 balance, I figured, should cover that stray check (if, indeed, it hadn't cleared) and any check charges as well. Also, a double-check of my records indicated that I hadn't neglected to enter an earlier withdrawal.

Dropped Digits?

The following Monday I went to the ATM again and checked my balance. I should've shown a balance of about $80, right? Wrong! I had a balance of about $152! Now, how in the world could I have deposited $75 into an account with only $5.95 in it and ended up with a balance of $152 unless that original $5.95 "available balance" was a typo? It looks to me as if a couple of digits got dropped. It's no big deal--I didn't lose anything. But it sure startled me for a while. Have you ever heard of one of these things misprinting like that?--C.G.

Answer: When the Automated Teller Machines hit the market here in a big way about three or four years ago, they opened up a whole new world of convenience--and, in their wake, a whole new world of screwed-up checkbooks too.

The most common failing: forgetting to enter these cash withdrawals in your checkbook as soon as they're made. That was your first and most logical conclusion, because finding a smaller balance than you had expected to find is so commonplace with some of us that it doesn't even deserve comment.

"A lot of people too," one local banker said, "don't take into account the fact that entering a deposit doesn't make it immediately available. It has to be visually verified. And, in the case of an out-of-town check, there may be a 'hold' on it for several days. Every once in a while, we even find an ATM with loose cash in it--the customer apparently thinks there's somebody in there to receive it and credit it to the right account."

Also a common cause of screwed-up checkbooks: hitting an inaccurate deposit figure on the ATM and then entering that in your checkbook. "The ATM," the local banker added, "simply gives you a receipt for what you punch in--right or wrong."

Another: failing to take into account the fact that outstanding checks can float around for an unconscionable length of time before hitting home and sending that old available balance into a sudden and precipitous tailspin.

All of which doesn't help much in explaining what happened to you if everything is indeed as you outline it--that you didn't have any recent deposits that might not have cleared yet, that all previous ATM withdrawals had been accounted for and that only one check could still be floating around. How did $75 and $5.95 add up to $152--everything else being even?

"We've never run across anything like this," our local banker said guardedly. "That's not to say, I suppose, that something strange couldn't have happened, but . . . ."

Possibility a New One

The possibility of an ATM typographical error is also a new one for Tom Bartoo, a public relations spokesman for Canton, Ohio-based Diebold Inc., the country's leading manufacturer of ATMs. "It's the first question of its kind that we've had."

Anything that is automated--including an ATM--has one overriding characteristic, Bartoo adds. "It does the same thing, the same way, every time--unless there's been a change in the software or there's been an electrical outage or something like that--all of which can and does happen."

In other words, an isolated, one-time malfunction like this would be extremely unusual--there should have been a whole batch of similar errors at about the same time.

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