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Al Martinez

He Banks on It: The Little Guy Can Win

July 25, 2002|Al Martinez

I will grant you at the outset that I usually have only a vague notion of what's going on with my checking account at Bank of America.

Similarly, I have no idea what the status of our household finances are. I know as much about our budget as I do about Euclidean geometry, which is nothing at all. My wife, the ebullient Cinelli, could be stashing money away in a Swiss bank and I would have no knowledge of it.

I say that by way of explaining that my monetary world is pretty much limited to an allowance I am given once a month for what she calls haircuts and martinis. Because I am not to be trusted with loose money in my pocket for longer than an hour or so, I deposit it instantly.

After that, I proceed to write checks up to the amount which I know more or less is in my account, being careful to deduct the $14 a month the bank charges me for the privilege of using its services.

It is $14 well spent. In the second quarter of this year, Bank of America's earnings grew by 10% to $2.22 billion, solidifying its position as a leading financial institution in this country. I've trusted them to use my $14 wisely and they haven't disappointed me. And I'll bet they don't even own a shredding machine.

Having said that, I bring you news today of an error the bank made. It is not likely to cause any fluctuations in the stock market or to deepen the frown on the face of Alan Greenspan, but it is an instance of triumph for a little person who challenged a giant and won. Listen while I relate the tale of Elmer and Goliath.

It began when I started noticing that my Bank of America Visa card was being called upon to back up checks I had supposedly written against insufficient funds. Not just once, but three or four times in a row.

When I mentioned to Cinelli that something was wrong, she said, "How would you know? I found a box full of your bank statements going back to the last century, and none of them had even been opened."

"You say 'last century' like it was in the Bronze Age. It was only a few years ago."

"Oh, well, forgive me, Elmer. A few years of unopened bank statements is hardly anything at all. I'll check you again in 2050."

She is among a small group of people who call me Elmer due to my tendency to occasionally slur my name so it comes out sounding like Elmer Teenez. Anyhow, I rummaged through the box, found the latest statement and discovered that a check I had dropped into one of those instant-deposit slots had never been credited to my account.

I telephoned the bank and ended up with a woman with an accent so thick I couldn't understand what she was saying. I don't know if she was from Ecuador or South Yemen, but I only got about every third word. Like "the," "no" and "however."

She must have understood my problem, because a few days later I received a letter from the bank saying that the check in question had indeed been deposited ... to my wife's account. It wasn't exactly a time for them to pound their chest and bellow the great ape's cry of victory, but there was nevertheless a certain smugness to their tone.

They had misdeposited the check, but were implying that it was somehow my fault. They felt no compulsion to apologize or even to explain how they could have done such a stupid thing. The letter concluded with, "We have closed the investigation on your claim." Oh, no you haven't, baby.

I followed up with a phone call and was connected to Yolanda. Up until then, I was like a character in a Shelley Berman monologue, wading through telephonic menus and clerks with limited knowledge toward an elusive paradise that contained The Person Who Could Help Me. Yolanda was the one. I mean The One.

"I don't know how that happened," she said, referring to the misdeposit. There was kindness in her voice, and sympathy. Nuns sound the same way when they aren't whacking you with a ruler.

She straightened everything out and then switched me to Brenda, who was the Visa Person. The advantage was mine now, so I demanded that service charges placed against me by Visa for backing up my bounced checks be removed from my account, because the backing-up had been unnecessary in the first place.

While not as warm and cozy as Yolanda, she was every bit as efficient and agreed that I should not have to pay the fees required for check-backing.

Final victory was achieved when Cinelli admitted that she had noticed the extra money deposited in her account but figured it was income from rental property or a refund from a catalog company. She wrote me a check for the amount and mumbled something to the effect that her investigation of my claim was also closed.

I am back to contributing $14 a month to the stability of Bank of America and to ignoring its periodic statements as incomprehensible pieces of paper with numbers on them. Things are normal. Life is good.

*

Al Martinez's columns appear Mondays and Thursdays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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