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Slippery Problem for ATM Cards

February 11, 1988|BILL SING | Times Staff Writer

Is something fishy fouling up automatic teller machine cards?

Eelskin wallets and purses made from the hagfish, an ugly creature also unaffectionately known as the slime eel, is causing a bit of a squirm in California banking circles. It seems the eelskin could be demagnetizing the electronic codes on ATM cards, making them unusable, officials of some California savings institutions say.

The problem of fouled-up ATM cards is not major; Bank of America says only 0.1% of its 3.8 million cards get reported as damaged each year. But the problem has been frequent enough to cause at least one institution, Wells Fargo Bank, to tell customers with bad ATM cards to avoid using eelskin wallets and purses. Wells Fargo spokeswoman Kim Kellogg said the problem was noticed three years ago.

John McCosker, director of San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, said he suspects the trouble is caused by a metallic residue left over from the tanning process in Korea, where most of the accessories are made.

But others say it may be premature to hook blame on the lowly eel or the wallet makers.

B of A spokeswoman Catherine Moss says the culprit is more likely the magnetic clasps on the wallets. She adds that anything with a magnetic field, ranging from garage door openers to microwave ovens, could also disrupt the cards' magnetic tape. "You get the card too close and it (a magnetic field) will eat it," Moss said.

But Moss and other banking officials say they will continue to fish for a definitive culprit.

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