By JEFF ROUBAL
Martinez News-Gazette Columnist
Like other curmudgeons, I complain about many things, especially all the new technologies. Every few days I am forced to learn how to use another new electronic program or gadget. So far, I have learned to check myself out at the grocery store and pump my own gas using automated cashiers and credit card readers. I have learned to navigate voice-activated, computerized answering lines instead of real-live people. I can’t work on my own car anymore because everything is computerized.
My new cell phone came with an instruction manual that was bigger than the instrument. This phone is quite a marvel. Three years after purchase, I still have not figured out how to do everything. They tell me that the phone is already outdated. The new model incorporates even more bells and whistles.
There are many things about which I complain but, once in a while, technology comes to the rescue. Take last week as the perfect example.
I received an email from my bank at 8:17 pm on Wednesday evening and just happened to be online at the time. The email said in part, “…There’s an important security issue for your credit card that we need to discuss with you. Please call us now…”
Using our house phone (yes, I still have one), I called my bank’s 24-hour toll free number at 8:35 pm. A nice lady named Sandra answered on the second ring. She asked, “Did you used your credit card earlier this afternoon to register for the ATC exam in Houston, Texas?” I told her, “Definitely not. I last used my card at Walmart a little after 5pm to buy dinner.” She said, “I can see that. The time was 5:17 pm. We already checked all your other transactions.” I cannot guess how many thousands of purchases she could see. I have been a customer of the bank since 1980.
Sandra continued, “Bank investigators have already checked out all your transactions and found only one suspicious.” The only one they flagged was in Houston. Sandra told me, “Because of the security lapse, this credit card is being deactivated immediately.” Within ten seconds, my favorite piece of plastic was converted to a bookmark. “A new card with a new, random number has been issued and will arrive in the mail in two days. Do you have any questions?” she finished. “No. Thank you for your help. Goodbye.” I answered. The whole call took less than a minute.
When I hung up, there were two missed calls and two voicemails on my cell phone. One was marked 6:33 pm. The other was at 7:13 pm. Both voicemails asked me to contact the bank about suspicious credit card transactions. There was also a text message on my cell phone that read, “ALERT: Please verify credit card charges for your card: Date: 19Jun Amt: 97.24 Where: ATC Reg TX Did you authorize this activity Reply Y or N.”
I find this whole incident remarkable for at least four reasons. First, during the weeks before my bank called, my wife and I were on a three-week road trip traveling through Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, and California. We used our credit card for hotels, meals, gas, museums, and tchotchkes yet only one transaction was flagged — the bogus one.
Second, the bank identified the suspicious transaction and notified me four times by email, voicemail, and text within a couple hours.
Third, the bank cancelled my card before it could be used again. They automatically sent me a brand-new card that arrived in the mail two days later.
Fourth, none of this cost me a cent, plus the bank reimbursed me $97.24 for the bogus charge to my account. You could not ask for much more. Technology came to the rescue but I still miss the old days sometimes.
I am old enough to remember driving to County Bank in Santa Cruz with my passbook to withdraw money from a Savings Account. For those who have never seen one, a passbook was a little paper notebook issued by the bank to each account holder. On the cover was your name, account number, and the date you opened your account. Inside were columns for credits and debits. The teller would take your money, write the amount in your passbook, stamp it with the date, then sign it with their initials. This is how you kept track of your account. Heaven help you if you lost the passbook (which I did at least once). A bank manager sat down with me and copied my transaction history and account balance from a two-foot stack of green-bar computer printouts. I left the branch an hour later with a new passbook and admonishments to be more careful.
When it looked like a customer was going to be overdrawn, the bank manager would consult his computer printouts. If it didn’t happen very often and the amount was small; the bank would “cover” my check because I was a long time customer. I miss having that little fudge factor in banking. We have an account in Martinez at 1st Northern California Credit Union. The tellers and the managers are great but there is no more fudge factor. It is a good thing I have overdraft protection.
Another thing I miss about the old days is “float time.” It used to be that, when I wrote a check at the grocery store, they would deposit it at the end of the day with all the other checks and receipts. Their bank would process it the next day then transmit to Federal Reserve. It would take another day for Reserve to process. On the fourth day, Reserve would mail it to my bank. My bank would take one day to debit my account. I could confidently write a check with no money in the bank as long as a sufficient deposit were made within the five day “float time.” Nowadays the sales charge hits my checking account before I walk out of the store.
Technology makes commerce and banking in California is rigid and impersonal but there are other options if you look far enough. We visited my brother and his wife in Thailand this year. The technology there is not nearly as pervasive. Prices for services and products were generally negotiable. Cash transactions were the norm. Helpful salespeople are everywhere. There were no barcodes or scanners and almost no computers or cash registers. On the downside, the quality of merchandise varied widely. There were no warranties, returns, or exchanges for stuff we bought. There was no guarantee that labels attached to things accurately described them. On the contrary, I found clothing being sold as 100% cotton fabric when it was obviously synthetic. Caveat Emptor.
It was fun buying souvenirs in Thailand but it might be a challenge to shop for doctors or lawyers or major appliances. My brother said he gets along fine because his wife was born and raised in Thailand. She handles all the negotiations.
Just like other curmudgeons, I complain about all the new technologies but complaining does no good. They are here to stay. I could join my brother living overseas but that would just postpone the inevitable. It is only a matter of time until card readers and automated cashiers spread everywhere including Thailand. In the meantime, I sleep comfortably knowing that my bank is on guard to alert me the minute someone else tries to buy random stuff with my credit card. Buying random stuff is my job!